Sunday, 2 November 2014

A fan's point of view

After a performance in which Chelsea struggled to reach top gear, Jose Mourinho was not hesitant to admit that a lack of an atmosphere around Stamford Bridge makes it difficult for the players to kill off games. 

Mourinho's comments came after the Blues shook off a tough QPR side to win 2-1 on Saturday afternoon. In an interview with talkSPORT, the Chelsea boss claimed it was like "playing in an empty stadium."

This isn't a rare outburst from The Special One, though; in his time at Inter and Madrid he was known for making similar statements, but was he right to?

From a personal point of view, I agree. It's been the case for a few seasons now and unfortunately that's the future of the game we love.

As a season ticket holder, I take my seat every week in the East Stand - those of you who have been to games over the years will know that the East Stand is not renowned for its atmosphere, and it drives me crazy. "East Stand, give us a song, East stand, East Stand give us a song!"...

I'm constantly surrounded by people who rarely talk about the game they're watching, or even show any sort of knowledge regarding Chelsea Football Club; my favourite from the last couple of seasons came from a guy in the row behind me, who asked his friend: 'Who's that number eight for Chelsea?'

It's not every game, of course; particularly European nights at the Bridge are fairly special. It just seems that with games on par with Saturday's fixture, people feel the result is a given and there isn't enough support for the team. The quieter periods of the game make it extremely difficult to enjoy the experience of being at a football match.

The sad reality is, as much of today's Twitter talk has suggested, Premier League stadiums are often filled with tourists and 'glory hunters'. I think it's fair to say that the club themselves need to take some of the blame for the occasional absence of an atmosphere as ticket prices seem increasingly ridiculous. 

In an interview with BBC Sport, Chelsea Supporters' Trust Chairman, Tim Rolls, suggested that the fans likely to make the most noise are the ones who can't afford to get in.

"It's unrealistic to expect 18-19 year-olds on minimum wage to come to Stamford Bridge or any other Premier League ground - this isn't just at Chelsea, it's an issue across the board" said Rolls. 

Without lower ticket prices, we will see an increasing amount of tourists and 'plastic fans' because that's the direction that football is heading in. People would rather watch from the comfort of their own homes than pay farcical prices to have their view impaired by the abnormally tall fella' in front. 

Mourinho's comments have sparked a debate across the world of football fan culture, and rightly so. It's about time something changed, because sooner or later the real football fans will become the minority. 

What are your thoughts? 

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Matic key to 'the new Chelsea'

Chelsea's Nemanja Matic is living proof that returning to your old club can be a successful decision; but has anybody ever arrived for the second spell at a club and been quite as significant as the Serbian has been in West London since rejoining last January?

The holding midfielder is finally gaining the recognition he deserves for consistently reliable and impressive performances in a Chelsea shirt, and I would challenge you to find a more dominant player in his position in England at this moment in time.

Matic returned to the club last January for a fee of £21 after leaving the Blues in 2011 as a make-way for David Luiz in a swap (+$25m) deal. The Serbian spent 3 years at Benfica building up his reputation as a top European player, perhaps emphasised by his performances that took the Portuguese side to the Europa League Final to conclude the 2012/13 season, where he faced his old and soon-to-be new team-mates.

For years the holding midfield position in the Chelsea team has been held by powerful, ball-winning midfielders; Essien, Ballack, Mikel. But Matic offers something different; the 26 year-old represents the new defensive midfielder, and more significantly, the new Chelsea. The Serbian's awareness and ability to break the game down whilst still containing the power to surge forward and create chances mimics the performances of Yaya Toure last season - crucial to Manchester City's success.

Matic's ability - helped by his physical build - is very rare in modern football. Certainly, in my short life-span as a football fan I've seen very few who are better than the midfielder is in his duties on the pitch.

So why have I bothered writing this article? Surely every Chelsea fan out there knows Matic's capabilities. His strength. Power. Decision making.

In truth, they probably do. But Chelsea's dependance on the 26 year-old isn't emphasised enough.

Matic has featured in the starting line up of 13 games this season. Within those 13 games, the Serbian has a win percentage of 77%.

There is absolutely no doubt in anyone's mind that Cesc Fabregas has an incredible footballing ability, but without Matic there, the Spaniard is limited in his influence of the game. The Serbian is able to break down opposition attacks so efficiently, leaving room and time for Fabregas on the ball.

The example of Shrewsbury away, however farcical, highlighted the need for Matic on the pitch - whoever the opponent. Last season it was supposedly the absence of Matic that left us falling short of European success, although I'd argue there was a lot more to it than that!

For me, Nemanja Matic is pivotal in the success of 'the new Chelsea'; the absence of his presence on any pitch is instantaneously noticeable. The Serbian has all the makings of a Chelsea great if he continues to progress in the way he has done so far.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

This time we mean it

Many seasons have gone by and many players have arrived, and every single time I hear the Chelsea fans mutter 'this'll be the start of a new era' - only to be proven categorically wrong six months down the line.

But this time (and I'm aware I could be placed in the same bracket) we mean it.

This season marks Jose's second in his return to Stamford Bridge. A second season means the special one has had a whole year to make his mark at the club; last season there were valid excuses - 'this is not my team', or, 'this is a transition season'. Well this time, there is no hiding.

Jose has had the whole summer to sort out his beloved Chelsea, and, from front to back, changes were made. July saw the signings of Diego Costa and Filipe Luis from Atletico Madrid, while former Barcelona and Arsenal midfielder Cesc Fabregas was brought in to offer something a bit different - something that, evidently, we've lacked in previous years.

When I say a 'era', I mean a period of time in which the club remains stable (the previous era being the Cech-Terry-Lampard-Drogba spine); now only one remains a permanent fixture in the Chelsea side. A summer which has seen Cole and Lampard leave West London, and Petr Cech shifted to the bench, obviously required a substantial amount of work to repair. But arguably Jose has done that - and more.

When I look at the Blues now, I see a stable team for the next five years (there are clearly a few exceptions - with the attacking midfielders regularly rotating and John Terry nearing the end of his career). Thibaut Courtois, and mark my words, will be a Chelsea legend. Rumours suggest we are to offer him a new contract in the coming weeks, and with our hands on the hottest goalkeeping prospect in world Football, why wouldn't we? Thibaut was always likely to stay once he began to start over Cech, and now that the time has come, it's only a matter of time before the records are broken in the Chelsea goal - although with Petr Cech's accolades, the boy has a lot to live up to.

Courtois is just one example of what I'm talking about. My point is that, the last time a transition like this happened, was in Jose's first spell at the club. That provided us with two of the most glorious years in the club's history, and you'd be naive to think that it wouldn't have continued without the Jose-Roman spat.

I, for one, am actually excited to watch Chelsea play Football again. I felt that last season we were one of the most boring sides in the League, and I'm sure others would agree. Granted, we made it to the Semi-Finals of Europe's biggest competition, and gave City a run for their money (literally) in the title race, but we were never good enough to deserve such a stature. We were mediocre at best when it mattered; Sunderland at home; Palace away; Villa away.

I look at the team that went away to Burnley and played out of their skins, a team that went to Goodison Park and scored SIX goals. We showed a fight that we never seemed to be able to conjure up last year, or the year before that.

Our squad depth is enough to challenge anyone and for anything. At Everton we utilised our array of attacking midfielders to a devastating affect. I like the idea of being able to use Willian in games like that; one of the most reliable attacking midfielders in terms of getting back to defend - also an incredible asset up the other end of the pitch!

All around the pitch we have a group that can play together, not just a team of individuals.

There's something different about the team this season. Something that suggests we mean it this time around.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

The Rise and Demise of Tiki-Taka

Recently deciding to improve my 'Sporting Book's' collection from a total of 0 to a grand total of 3, I felt now was a stranger time than ever to be reading one in particular.

One of the three books bought, written by Jimmy Burns, takes a brilliant approach in analysing the rise of Spanish football in recent years - or more so 'how football conquered Spain, and how Spain conquered the world'. La Roja, published in 2012, has everything you need to know about the greatest sport in the world, in perhaps one of the greatest Footballing Countries. So why is it that I look to a book - published so recently - as outdated? When did the 'beautiful game' become so, well, boring to watch?

For me, the tipping point was on Wednesday night, when Bayern travelled to the Bernabeu to face Real Madrid in the Champions League Semi-Finals. Bayern approached the game fearlessly, seeing most of the ball for the majority of 15 minutes at the start of the game - until Real went 1-0 up, and eventually won the game. It got me thinking.

Barcelona are my starting point. The Catalans have been a dominant force in world Football since way before my time. However, in the last decade or so, the world of Football has seen a rise in the tiki-taka mentality and style of play; knocking the ball left to right, forwards and backwards, growing your opponents weary until deciding to play that killer pass through the defensive line from which your team score a goal. Fantastic, isn't it? The style suits so many, and in particular the teams with very little height - and perhaps power - about them. Football fans globally see this as the way the game should be played. Simple Football. Aesthetically pleasing. This style of Football has been adopted most notably in Spain, but has begun to filter its way through the different Countries and leagues, year by year. And why wouldn't it? Barcelona have been collecting silverware like it's pocket money over the last few decades, so to mimic their style of play can only be seen as a good thing, right?

Perhaps the main reason for the rise of the 'tiki-taka' philosophy, though, is down to the success of the Spanish national team. World Cup and European Championship winners in the last four years, and claiming a spot as one of the greatest National teams to conquer world Football. The strangest thing is to believe this has all been achieved without a real striker to lead the line. In recent years, Spain have utilised the idea of the 'False 9' formation, in which no striker is deployed. The role, usually filled by the likes of Fabregas, makes use of the 'False 9' player as someone to come and collect the ball and make things happen much like a playmaker would. The way that the tiki-taka style of play opens up defences is mesmerising at times, and in Spanish football it's almost faultless - against the weaker teams.

This season has brought a new challenge for Barca and Real in the form of Atletico Madrid. Currently leading La Liga, Simeone's men have been such a powerful presence in this year's competition. Playing with pace and a direct approach, it's really given Football fans everywhere a chance to see the negatives of the 'pass-pass-pass' mentality. I can't put my finger on what it is that makes this year seem like a turning point; not just in Spanish football, but everywhere. Guardiola, a man who's career thrives on the tiki-taka philosophy, has this year brought the style of play to Bundesliga giants, Bayern Munich. Bayern have completely walked through the German league this year, winning the Bundesliga almost a month ago. But can we really base our judgement on the direction of tiki-taka football on the Bundesliga; I mean, with all granted respect, there are only really two teams in it.

This is what brought me to my conclusion on Wednesday night. Bayern - the away side - had 72% possession in the game, but only conjured up one more shot than Real on the night. Possession really doesn't mean goals. Maybe it's just me being naive, but there's just something so tedious and dull about the way it's played. Bayern play their way to the edge of the box, then backwards, then switch it right, then back left, then to Robben, then back, and on and on and on. It's not just the fact I don't enjoy it, it just seems so evidently ineffective against the big teams. Look at Barca this season, a brilliant side of course, but nobody is talking about them like they used to; they are no longer the team everyone looks up to.

Being a Chelsea fan, this season has had me question the idea of results over performance, or vice versa. A neutral watching a Chelsea game in recent weeks would probably struggle to stay awake; it's not attractive, and it's not exciting, but it get's results. The worry for me is, do I want Chelsea again to be seen as a team that - hypothetically - wins the Champions League by playing as 'the little club'? I believe, with the current direction that Football is heading in, the likes of both Madrid clubs - alongside perhaps Liverpool and City - lead the way. It's direct. Fans pay money to watch exciting football. They want shots, saves, goals. But of course, this is a blog. A matter of opinion. What's yours?

Sunday, 13 April 2014

The Transition

Counting down the days until the new season began last August seems only moments ago; but now here we are, weeks away from the conclusion of this years campaign.

This season marked Jose's first in his second spell at the Bridge, and with only 4 League and 2 - perhaps 3 - European games remaining, we review what positives - as well as negatives - derive from the year. If we are to believe everything we read, the Blues' Boss has been given an initial four years to create a new dynasty at Chelsea. Four years to make a good team into a great team, with a foundation to build on over the next decade or so.
A lot of people do forget that, although this year has been relatively successful, this is supposedly another season of transition for the Blues. This Summer will see many changes both in and out at the club, with the seemingly immortal core of the team soon to give way to a promising and exciting group of young players.
The season has been priceless in terms of integrating the new boys into the team; the likes of Willian, Matic, Schurrle and perhaps Salah all gaining crucial experience in the English game. Willian in particular appears to have a bright future at the club, and his development in his role behind the striker - be it left, right or directly behind - has been great to see. At times the link up play between the Brazilian and whoever he plays alongside has been sensational, and his work rate, desire and enthusiasm to help the team out off the ball has made him one of the standout players this year.

So, if we were to win no silverware in the next month, how do we determine whether it's been a successful or forgettable season? How do we conclude that Jose's return has had a positive impact on Chelsea Football Club? Do we base our judgement on data (games won, goals scored etc.), or do we look at the direction this season has taken us in for future years?
If you base your opinion on the latter, I think it's fair to say that Jose's second reign has begun positively. We get the impression that this team is far from what Mourinho has in mind, with the - correct - public criticising of our forwards suggesting the Manager wants a clean out in the Summer. So to put that into context, the Blues are in the Semi-finals of the Champions League, with a chance at the Premier League title,  and Jose doesn't even consider it to be a good enough team; as a fan, that leaves me with high hopes for the Summer and the next few years.
However, it's been a far from perfect season. Particularly, the performance of our strikers, as well as the team's performances away from home, have been evidently disappointing. Availability heuristic - Villa and Palace away, 6 points that may have won us the league, had we gone there as a clinical team prepared to fight. It's difficult to see Jose not bringing in a new forward next season, so I think another disappointing element is that next season may be a transition for that particular player, when really - had the right player been available - this season could have been used for such needs.
One thing that is difficult to determine from only one season of Jose is his plans for the academy players and perhaps the financial future of the club. It's been a while since anybody came through the ranks and made it in the first team - it's the idea of finding the next big thing before the current big thing is no longer a big thing anymore, and avoiding a hit to the bank balance at the same time. The only real player to make a progression this year being Lewis Baker, who made a couple of Capital One Cup bench appearances, followed by his professional debut against Derby in the FA Cup earlier this year. This is something the fans want to see more of; if Jose wants to build a new dynasty at the Bridge, there needs to be thoughts based on the long term future of the club, and not just a big signing to come and please the crowd for two years.

Ultimately, the success of the season still hangs in the balance; two trophies are still there for the taking, as the Blues conclude their first season in the new era.

Friday, 21 February 2014

The Title Race

With only 12 games remaining in this season’s Premier League, all the signs show it could be going down to the wire. Chelsea currently lead the chase, with the top four all in close proximity; but will we still see the Blues at the top of the table in 3 months time?

It’s at this point in the season we see the difference a larger squad can make – or squad depth for that matter. At this moment in time, it’s going to be difficult to stop Manchester City. The difference – I feel – is that power that City have up front, that we so crucially lack. The Manchester side have netted 68 goals this season, compared to our 48. I’m normally the one that argues for points over goals, but in this case the emphatic amount of goals City are scoring are winning the points in tricky games, where perhaps we lack fire power.

I look to the absence of Sergio Aguero to support my point. The Argentine has missed several games this season due to injury, but even without him City have three clinical strikers, in Dzeko, Negredo and Jovetic, all contributing their fair share of goals in City’s surge for the title. The frustrating thing for me to admit as a Chelsea fan is that, really, I would have any of those three strikers to lead our line.

So what is it that our three front men are missing? Power? Acceleration? Clinical finishing? To be truthful, it’s all of that and more. City have four excellent strikers at the peak of their careers, all with that desire to want more; to improve. I don’t like to be too critical of our forwards because they work their hardest for the team. But the unfortunate circumstance is that these – formally so clinical – strikers and now on a downward spiral. This is one of the things that irritated me the most in Lukaku loan at the beginning of the season. Of course he will make mistakes, but these mistakes are a fundamental part of a player’s development, and Lukaku is only going to get better with age (albeit perhaps at a different club, unfortunately).

Arsenal are also title contenders, and after a disappointing defeat to Bayern at the Emirates on Wednesday, it seems the Premier League will now have to be their prominent focus. Arsenal have been impressive this season, with perhaps their strongest title contention in several years. Although the injury to Aaron Ramsey – who is targeting the Chelsea game next month as his come back – has tainted their season slightly, the North London side seem more than serious challengers this year. The question is, will they fade away like the typical Arsneal we know and love? They have a much tougher run of fixtures than us, but in this season’s Premier League that seems to mean very little.

Completing the top four are Liverpool. The Merseyside club are perhaps enjoying their best season since a certain Fernando Torres was firing in goals from all angles under Benitez. Sturridge and Suarez have been in formidable form this season, and the latter’s appearance at the top of the golden boot table is pushing Liverpool onwards, as they are now only four points off the top. They also have the advantage as the only top four club that isn’t in Europe, meaning Champions League weeks will provide welcomed rest to their squad. I believe the next few games will really determine Liverpool’s ambitions for this season; if they maintain the level they are at now, then there’s every chance they can be title contenders.

What are your top four predictions come May?

Monday, 3 February 2014

Digging Deep

Ivanovic rifles home the winner to give Chelsea a valuable three points

"A Mourinho Monday Night Masterclass" were the exact words used on Sky Sports' Monday Night Football; and that it was. Chelsea stealing the three points from a City team yet to lose at home this season prior to tonight's game, in what was a stunning performance from the Blues. 

The game began in a slightly uncomfortable fashion for Mourinho's men, as within the first two minutes Petr Cech and Gary Cahill were not far off from repeating the Hart-Nastasic disaster in the reverse fixture earlier this season. City began the game strongly, overrunning the Blues for the first 15 minutes, in which David Silva could have, and should have, put the Manchester side 1-0 up. 

This was perhaps the wake up call that Chelsea were in need of. Mourinho's tactics on the night were far from what the media and the fans themselves had predicted; although the Blues had adopted a 4-3-3 - much like at the Emirates just after Christmas - they were far more decisive and threatening than City anticipated. Ivanovic pushed so high up on Kolarov that, at times, it felt like we were playing three at the back! The chances soon came thick and fast for Chelsea; Eden Hazard - who was sensational on the night - at the heart of everything in and around the City area. The ball broke to Premier League debutant Nemanja Matic on the edge of the Chelsea area as played Willian in to set up a 4-on-2 involving the Brazilian, Eto'o, Hazard and Ramires - the latter squandering what really was a golden opportunity. Despite the result and the team performance, the conclusion of this chance really frustrated me, and - judging by the reaction on Twitter - the majority of Chelsea fans. For me it emphasised what we've been missing this season. Yes, it was a fantastic performance. Yes, we got the three points. However, all it needed was one goal from City, and we are left ruing our missed chances. It's that lack of clinical finishing in front of goal which may be decisive come May. 

The game progressed, and shortly after Hazard - completely isolating Demichelis - picked up the ball on the touchline before cutting inside and opening up the Chelsea attack. The Belgian played the ball to Ramires before making a run behind the City back four where he received the ball from Ivanovic, creating the chance from which the Serbian, on his weaker left foot, drilled the half-volley into the corner of the net from 20 yards out. It was nothing short of what we deserved, having really played City at their own game for half an hour. 

Not long before the break Chelsea hit the woodwork for the first time, which would accumulate to three by the end of the game; Hazard again gliding past Zabaleta as if he wasn't there, before playing the ball across the face of goal for Eto'o to run onto and smash against the bar. I can't think of many times in my life where I have not wanted the half time whistle to blow. We were dominating a very important game in our challenge for the title, and I felt half time would allow City to regroup and come out stronger. 

It was a testament to our resilience that, in fact, they came out with no more desire to score than they had in the first half. We began the second period in the way we had finished the first - determined to win every ball and stop City from doing what they do best. Hazard yet again creating chances from no where - the 23 year old only seems to be getting better and better; playing with that raw talent from which he can make the most difficult task look like a stroll in the park, accompanied by his newly installed hunger to track back and help the team out. Hazard and Willian were fundamental on the night, with performances that conveyed the reasons behind the departure of Mata. The two wingers were simply on another level, Mourinho has filled them with this new mentality, which Gary Neville picked up on in the post-match analysis. The way the modern game is evolving, you cannot simply have a 'luxury' player on the wing, a top team needs a winger who is also a wing back, and a wing back who is also a winger. This was seen emphatically tonight in Chelsea's performance, with Hazard and Willian's work rate placing the likes of Silva in their shadows. 

Mid-way through the second half Matic crashed a shot against the crossbar from a good 25 yards out. The Serbian was brilliant on the night of his Premier League debut, collecting the Man of the Match award. Watching a couple of his performances last season, I saw him as a similar player to Yaya Toure, and what better night to have my judgement than when he faced up to the Ivorian. Toure has been a monumental figure for City this season, and Matic was absolutely superb in keeping him quiet for the majority of the game. I felt like, at times - to use the cliche - Matic was giving Toure a taste of his own medicine. I believe him to be exactly what we need in 'today's Chelsea'. A player who can sit and defend in front of the back four with ease, but when required, is able to exude sheer power to surge forward and create an attack - something we have been lacking for many seasons. 

As the game concluded, Cahill hit the post as he leapt to meet Willian's corner. Cahill was another contender for Man of the Match, in what was perhaps his strongest performance in a Chelsea shirt this season; never allowing the City forwards any time on the ball, as well as putting his body in the way to make influential and crucial blocks. The Blues dug deep to keep a clean sheet at the Etihad, a task not accomplished by an away side there for 61 games (over 3 years), another call for celebration!  I felt it was our best team performance of the season. We were decisive and effective in all areas of the pitch. For me, the 3 central midfielders worked well together, but I think there could be room to rotate. What are your thoughts on the midfield 3 and our performance as whole?

Team ratings: 

Cech - 9: Didn't have too much to do, but when he did (Silva's free kick and Jovetic's shot towards the end) he was confident and both were great saves. Another clean sheet. 

Ivanovic - 9: One of his best performances of the season, playing as a right winger and a right back. Fantastic goal and technique on his weaker foot, and kept City away from that left flank for most of the game. 

Terry - 8: Solid game from our captain. Played every minute of Premier League football this season and has shown no signs of tiring. Inspiring performance. 

Cahill - 9: As they suggested on MNF, if his header had gone in he would have perhaps scooped the MOTM award. Nonetheless a superb performance. One of his best in a Chelsea shirt.

Azpi - 7: A solid game, kept going until the end, although he allowed Navas a lot of space towards the last few minutes which didn't help my nerves! 

Luiz - 8: Less temperamental than I have seen him this season. Felt confident with him on the ball and he and Matic worked well to keep Toure quiet.

Matic - 9: Brilliant debut for the Serbian, appeared every where on the pitch and picked up the MOTM award. 

Ramires - 7: Still annoyed by his wasted opportunity, but can't fault his work rate. 

Hazard - 9: Breathtaking. What else?

Willian - 8: Lost the ball a few times but the clean sheet can largely be put down to his work rate in the midfield, stopping City from moving the ball about.

Eto'o - 7: Probably should have had a goal when he hit the ball. Worked well at the top whilst isolated, still don't believe he is the man to take us forward.