Chelsea's players must be living on a knife-edge
00:28 GMT, 25 November 2012
Since hearing that Roberto Di Matteo
had been sacked I’ve been torn in my response. In one sense, what
happened goes against everything I’ve grown up with: stability, keeping
the same manager, longevity and building that sense of security around
the workplace where everyone knows each other and where trust can
And then there’s a sense of
resignation, that what happened is just the way of the modern world.
Some people don’t want to get married and stay with the same person
for the next 40 years. Some people like to be more fluid in their life.
And you can gain happiness both ways.
But having weighed it up, my
overwhelming feeling is that there’s something quite dark about last
week’s events: whether it be the sacking of a manager who won the
European Cup and FA Cup six months ago; whether it be the fall-out over
the Mark Clattenburg affair, with a referee accused of making a racist
comment and then no substantive evidence being produced; whether it is
the odd appointment of Rafa Benitez only as an ‘interim’ manager; or
whether it is the incredible amount of information that leaks out of
Chelsea, so much that everyone must be on a knife-edge at that club.
The writing's on the wall: Roberto Di Matteo shows the strain as Chelsea slump to a 3-0 reverse against Juventus
I think of the dressing room being a
sanctuary, that anything which happens on the coach, the plane, in the
hotel, is sacrosanct. It never seems that way at Chelsea. So much has
come out this week that I was asking myself: ‘When does a leaker become a
mole’ I would find it very difficult to operate in a situation like
Trust is a word that is incredibly
important in all walks of life but it does not seem to feature when it
comes to good men like Carlo Ancelotti, World Cup winners like Luiz
Felipe Scolari and now a Champions League winner in Roberto Di Matteo.
I can’t make head nor tail of it. I’ve
been fortunate enough never to have experienced that kind of
environment and I never want to. It’s something that you can’t analyse.
You simply have to accept that that’s the way it is and that Chelsea are
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What you can analyse is why they have
made this switch now. Because what remains true for every club, despite
all the shenanigans going on in the background that seem to be a part of
football nowadays, is that there is still a fascinating match that will
take place today. Thankfully that still remains the source of
football’s appeal and the reason why fans love the game.
The consensus seems to be that the
logic in bringing in Rafa Benitez is that he is there to get Fernando
Torres back to his former self. To me, that is missing the main point.
Forget that. It’s not going to happen. Torres has been playing like he has for two-and-a-half years now. That’s not a dip in form; it’s a change in the player. He has to adapt his game now to make up for the fact that he can’t glide past defenders as he used to.
What’s more pertinent is how Rafa Benitez manages the style change Chelsea have undergone this season. And how he solidifies a side who are entertaining but have become fragile. Chelsea have not kept a clean sheet in their last seven Premier League games and have conceded 20 goals in their last nine in all competitions.
We’ve all marvelled at Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar. But when you think of Rafa Benitez’s record at Liverpool, his mindset was always to ensure he had a strong, cohesive defensive unit.
He has said that he has seen small things he can improve after two training sessions and I think he’s referring to those two shaded areas in the chalkboards above. Those areas, the space between his full-backs and his wide players, between Ashley Cole and Eden Hazard and Cesar Azpilicueta and Mata are the stuff of Rafa Benitez’s worst nightmares. The system Chelsea have played recently leaves dangerous pockets of space between the midfielders, where players like Samir Nasri and David Silva will punish you.
Does the full-back push into the spaces too early and leave the centre-halves one on one Do the two central midfielders spread to cover those spaces but then leave space for Carlos Tevez and Sergio Aguero in the centre
I think Ramires could become Chelsea’s key man in the next three weeks. When Chelsea were successful last season, we saw Ramires, against Napoli and Barcelona, play in those wide areas, running up and down for 90 minutes. He can do the job Dirk Kuyt used to do for Rafa Benitez at Liverpool, by getting into attacking positions but with a willingness to track back quickly to close off those spaces.
Then you can leave a more offensive player on the left-hand side, because, with a player like Ramires on the right, if your left-back is being attacked, then a holding midfield player — either John Obi Mikel or Oriol Romeu — can get across to help him while Ramires comes back into central midfield.
On the ball: Ramires is likely to be a key part of Rafa Benitez's plans at Chelsea
Maybe today Chelsea will start with Mata, Hazard and Oscar because it would be too soon to leave one of his star players out. But if they do, it will be a test of Mata and Hazard, to see how they can adapt to closing off those spaces.
But I believe Rafa Benitez’s instincts would be to bring in Romeu or Frank Lampard, when fit, in a holding midfield role alongside Mikel and put Ramires on the right, with Hazard on the left, leaving out Oscar. In the long term, that is the direction Chelsea will be going.
Rafa Benitez has 12 games now in 39 days, including a trip to Japan to play in the Club World Cup. One area where he does have an advantage over Roberto di Matteo is that he is an experienced manager with an ability to navigate that kind of programme, having done it so many times in the past.
I did think Roberto Di Matteo made an error last month in the Capital One Cup clash against Manchester United in keeping some of his star players on the pitch, some for 120 minutes. They won the game, three days after losing to United in the Premier League. But, with the fixture list that Chelsea have coming up, that was maybe a game he should have let go.
Turning back time: Benitez's remit will be to get the best out of Fernando Torres, but the task is a tough one
I think it will be impossible to play Mata, Hazard and Oscar in all of those 12 games over the next 39 days. And it will suit Rafa Benitez to rotate them as he integrates a more cohesive defensive unit, making sure those shaded boxes are full of his players and not the opposition’s.
If he can do that and get John Terry back fit, then you will see a defensive improvement. And that, more than waiting for a miracle to happen with Torres, is what Rafa Benitez can do for Chelsea.