How refreshing. An international fixture break, the tragedy of the club footballing calendar, lasted only a couple of days, not denying the world the sometimes excruciating fortnight wait, and managed, for once, to turn the virtually useless intermission into an exciting and indeed revealing affair. A moment of calculated lunacy from an Ancelotti-revived Zlatan aside, England, like Chelsea, sorely missed the defensive leadership of a forcibly retired John Terry in Sweden.
The difference is one of his dependents gets him back.
Out in New York City, Oscar impressed for Brazil. For the Selecão to entrust a young playmaker with the reigns of such a nationally venerated position that might very well be his privilege to lose going into the 2014 World Cup speaks volumes of the talent we have at Chelsea. I for one am placing more hope and expectation on his potential and development than that of Eden Hazard.
Oh, and no, given the circumstances, Zlatan’s was not the best goal ever.
Back in the Midlands of England, Chelsea were perhaps reflecting on the points dropped against Liverpool with an even greater rueful lament as an away battle with a home-strong 5th placed side beckoned – a side that has fatefully written itself into the Chelsea story.
In a tale of two former Chelsea players turned former Chelsea assistants turned managers, Roberto Di Matteo, dismissed by West Brom two years ago, returned as European Champion while Steve Clarke, once Mourinho’s No. 2, faced a beloved side who really should have offered him the manager’s job at some point. Building on Robbie’s splendid work at the Baggies, the ascendancy of Clarke’s West Brom is nothing short of exceptional.
To look back at Clarke’s days as an assistant manager at Chelsea is to peer into a wealth of talent waiting in the wings. Jose’s subordinates included, as we all know, Andre Villas-Boas and Brendan Rodgers, who, despite their current misgivings, have achieved considerable levels of success in the game – relatively, of course. Is it any surprise what Chelsea achieved then given the backroom staff?
Never underestimate the significance of the support systems behind success.
Ancelotti, along with importing his famed fountain-of-youth physician, brought on board Ray Wilkins, a positive force if there ever was one. The effect of his departure materialized too quick for comfort.
While the current crop is not under scrutiny, it is worth pondering their contributions and deficiencies and how that might benefit or adversely affect the next six months.
In the season gone by, the match against West Brom, poignantly, was AVB’s last Premier League session in charge. More so than Napoli, Albion exposed a faltering Chelsea side for all its failings and inadequacies and typified everything we were not. A revealingly tragic day of football regardless of what followed a few months later. A return to the Hawthorns, then, could certainly be used as a yardstick of progress made as far as the league goes.
Despite the brevity of the fixture, Di Matteo saw fit to field his weakest possible side. Distant international friendlies and the crunch match against Juventus aside, the league surely must command utmost priority after a deeply uncharacteristic sixth place finish.
Frontman: Torres, a player unlike any other in that he divides opinion as sharply as the American presidency. To the non-believers: Torres has scored 18 goals in the last two years at Chelsea; only Mata and Lampard have scored more with 19 each. To the ardent backers: Torres is not only due any odd off-the-ass goal, he is due a goal of pace, technique, trickery and audacity to have any hope of being more than just a workhorse, which, appreciated as it is, is not enough.
Triumvirate: Hazard was placed in the hole, a position he allegedly demanded during contract negotiations and excelled at in the first match of the season against Wigan. His confrontation with Albion’s ever-impressive Mulumbu would be decisive, one feels. Sturridge was flung out right, a place on the pitch he has expressed his disdain for more than once. And Moses found himself on the left wing, a familiar responsibility at his time at the DW albeit under a very different system.
Pivot: Potential room for improvement in the deeper recesses of the midfield with Mikel possibly in need of a break and the evident need for a long-passing expert to truly complete the duopoly by complementing the now seemingly untouchable ball-winner.
Defensive Quartet: How David Luiz earned a starting spot ahead of Ivanovic or why the Cahill-Luiz pairing, which has not kept a clean sheet, should stand firm is somewhat of a mystery.
This was perhaps an unwisely experimental side. A different formation or shape, rather than repetitive variations of the 4-2-3-1, might be more appropriate in order to confound an increasingly adaptive set of managers and teams.
A good start, as always, is a must since our need to hit the 10-minute snooze button at kick-off remains a lingering affliction. With West Brom’s right hand side pinpointed as a soft spot, Moses stretched his movement to find space and enjoyed quite a bit of the ball early on. A clearance off the line from his cutback denied Bertrand a goal.
Forward roaming enthusiasm and Matteo’s laissez-faire policy towards the full-backs aside, one would prefer not to see a less disciplined left-back in the opposition box with five minutes played. Shape and organization are key for a side that will play on the counter attack.
Youssuf Mulumbu, who I consider to be Albion’s best player mainly because of a bias towards holding midfielders given their immensely invaluable role in shaping the fortunes of any team, became the first player I’ve seen this league season to truly have Hazard in his pocket. Strength and what appeared to be a well-studied sense of movement and anticipation laid waste to our most creative outlet.
An utterly innocuous exchange of passes on West Brom’s left hand side somehow, just somehow, managed to completely unravel the defence, leaving a chasmic gorge of space in the box unattended to by either Cahill or Mikel. To allow such a cross to come in is comedic. To then allow Shane Long to bid Luiz farewell without any real form of defensive protest was tragic. Young Ryan didn’t add to his cause by spectating as Luiz faltered again.
West Brom remained organized as ever, giving away nothing in defence with Mulumbu putting in a Makelele-esque performance. One would expect nothing less of a side drilled in the phalanx-like defensive arts of Steve Clarke. So much so that we resorted to one-time speculative flicks and hopeful tap-downs as penetration remained chastised. Torres’ movement was non-existent.
Just as Mata’s glaring miss against Liverpool was prophetic, one felt whether Moses’ dry heave strike on the byline was perhaps a sign of things to come.
Recognizing Hazard’s ineffectiveness in the middle, Robbie reverted to placing the Belgian on the left. Free of Mulumbu, Hazard immediately dictated play, stretching play to the right flank for the honorary right winger Azpilicueta to collect and swing back to the far post. A strong leap from Hazard deflected in by the arm of Billy Jones levelling matters and a turnaround certainly on the cards.
But it’s never been the attack that has let us down thus far.
Chelsea began the second half like we should have the first – with purpose and vigour. Moses seemed undoubtedly more comfortable on the right, storming through and cutting it back for Daniel Sturridge, who would fail to finish his first of many, many chances this match. A second goal in our favour looked ever so likely, but as did a ruthless counter attack for the Baggies.
With Mikel and Romeu pushed forward, Morrison split a literally barren midfield that set West Brom on their way. Keen interplay isolated Long on the right flank, and with enough time to wait for the run and measure the cross, Odemwingie put West Brom 2-1 ahead. Yet again it was the left side that proved kryptonic. Bertrand was also fooled by the play, which drew him into the box, abdicating responsibility for the channel to David Luiz, who, with arms tucked behind his back, allowed the cross to come in. Odemwingie was always going to come up trumps in that battle.
That we have still not conjured a panacea for that cursed left flank is about as tragic as the simplicity of West Brom’s play that did the team in.
The customary denied penalty took place soon after as Moses was fouled in the box with unerring blatancy. One should really keep a meticulous tally of all the stonewall penalties that do not go our way to see if things really “even out” come season’s end. My not-entirely-confident tally stands at five.
As crosses came in, particularly from Azpilicueta, a signing that is impressing with his attacking abilities each match, the reluctance of any of the frontmen to throw themselves at the ball without qualm or thought of injury, to get their heads in where the boots are, displayed an uncharacteristic lack of grit.
With an hour played, the anonymous Torres, his lip cut, was hauled off for Mata, who really should have started. Is there any more apt of a visual to illustrate Torres’ perplexing situation than a bloodied mouth? And yes, that foul was entirely missed by the officiating crew. Oscar replaced Romeu, putting every available attacking option Chelsea have on the pitch.
Mata’s expected incisiveness and Sturridge’s movement in the final third transformed our chances of walking away with at least a point, but the Spaniard’s altruism was not reciprocated as Sturridge missed a host of golden opportunities and, constantly in search of glory, refused to return the favour. Oscar’s world class side-heeled flick to release Sturridge deserved, warranted, demanded, damn near wept for an equalizer or, at the very least, a low ball across the box to Mata. The decision and the finish was, well, tragic.
One striker who hustles and harries for his team but seems incapable of producing a run that dumbfounds the defence while the other produces the necessary movement but lacks a finishing touch or communal attitude. Short of spending another absurdly high eight figure transfer fee, what is Chelsea to do?
To see Petr Cech extend his legs to acrobatically keep the ball in play during the final set piece in the dying minutes said it all really.
Two seasons, two losses at the Hawthorns. Have we progressed in the league? Of course. Has the early season honeymoon come to end? Most definitely. Don’t blame the Ides of November, West Brom have again exposed a work in progress. It was by no means an abysmal performance, quite the contrary, but this team’s shortcomings, or at least that of the “weaker” echelons, were illuminated.
Thankfully, the tragedy of the loss was lessened by Manchester United’s oh so deserved defeat at the hands of Hughton’s Norwich. The Canaries even survived Fergie Time, which was extended from three minutes to four to finally five.
A repeat of any of yesterday’s antics against Juventus and the tragedy of Turin will be far worse.
- Petr Cech: 7 – Little he could do for both goals.
- Ryan Bertrand: 6 – Good going forward but has a lot to learn about defending and positioning.
- Gary Cahill: 6 – Not his usual self.
- César Azpilicueta: 6.5 – A good wing-back.
- Oriol Romeu: 5 – Not a bad player by any means, but rarely commanded the midfield.
- John Obi Mikel: 7 – General.
- Victor Moses: 6.5 – Huffed and puffed.
- Eden Hazard: 8 – He never loses possession. Ever.
- Juan Mata and Oscar: 8 – self-explanatory.
- Ramires: What could he really have done?
- David Luiz
- Fernando Torres
- Daniel Sturridge
Man of the Match
Steve Clarke, a Chelsea legend. We wish him the absolute best.
The Observer, Stuart James: “The ramifications will be nothing like as severe for Roberto Di Matteo as they were for Andre Villas-Boas, who was sacked after Chelsea lost here in March, but this still felt like a significant defeat for the Italian. It is now four Premier League games without a win for Chelsea – their worst run since Di Matteo took over from Villas-Boas – and there are inevitable comparisons to be drawn with previous seasons, when winter’s onset has frozen Chelsea’s title aspirations.”
The Sunday Telegraph, John Percy: “Roberto Di Matteo was at the centre of a stormy dressing-room inquest after his side’s fourth successive Premier League match without a win. Several raised voices were heard coming from the Chelsea dressing room in the aftermath of this defeat and on Saturday night the BBC’s Pat Murphy claimed via Twitter that Di Matteo himself had been overheard berating his players, shouting at them: “Call yourselves a Champions League winners’ side and you can’t beat them.””
The Independent on Sunday, John Culley: “There is enormous potential … for things to get worse before they get better, assuming that they do. On Tuesday, Chelsea go to Turin, where a defeat against Juventus would leave their defence of their Champions’ League crown looking anything but comfortable. Then, a week today, they face Manchester City at Stamford Bridge. All this without John Terry, whose absence yesterday again emphasised the vulnerability of Di Matteo’s defence.”
The Official Chelsea FC Website: “The Blues suffered a first away defeat in the league as the autumn dip continues. Chelsea, who made several changes to the starting line-up, had the opportunities in the second half, most notably for Daniel Sturridge who moved from the wing to centre-forward after Fernando Torres was taken off, but he came across a keeper in form, making it an unhappy return to The Hawthorns for Roberto Di Matteo who will be hoping for a better night in his home country on Tuesday.”