Chelsea taking shape in preseason
As Chelsea look forward to a campaign in which much is expected of them, they can be happy that their preparations thus far have progressed nicely. The gentle easing into the competitive framework that will shape their approach to the season has proceeded with the subtle incremental improvements that are imperative towards gathering momentum ahead of the big kickoff.
That is not to say everything has gone their way, as there have been a few hiccups. A young Chelsea side found themselves 2-0 down at AFC Wimbledon in their second encounter since returning to training before the introduction of the old guard from the bench turned the deficit into a 3-2 win. And just this past Sunday, the Blues fell to a 3-0 defeat against Bundesliga side Werder Bremen in a display that lacked rhythm and was hard to get too excited about. Yet even the events of that encounter will have its merits, serving to focus the mind as well as prepare them for some dubious refereeing after the man in the middle awarded the German team two extremely questionable penalties.
Of course results are not the be-all and end-all in preseason, with attaining match sharpness and cohesive patterns of play being the ultimate goal for the squad. Nevertheless, installing a winning culture can never be a bad thing, especially when the habit of losing can be particularly corrosive to morale. One only needs to rewind 12 months and take a look at Manchester United's preparations ahead of their "annus horribilis" to see a portent of what poor preparation can do. They only won one of five preseason matches -- against Kitchee of Hong Kong -- while losing to Yokohama F. Marinos and Sevilla and drawing with AIK and Cerezo Osaka. By comparison, Chelsea's four wins and just one defeat from their six matches so far looks rather more encouraging.
Still, there is no point winning these games if the result is the only positive to take from them. That, fortunately, has not been the case, with a number of benefits gleaned from these exalted training sessions.
Firstly, it has been good to see that Nemanja Matic has begun where he left off last season, dominating his opponents and dictating the centre of the pitch. His telescopic legs and imposing physique have been in evidence once again, though just as encouraging have been his thrust and creativity, often playing the final ball to release a forward in behind the opposition defence.
Alongside him, manager Jose Mourinho has selected Marco van Ginkel for the matches against Werder and Vitesse Arnhem, the two strongest opponents faced to date, which could indicate how he intends to set up for the opening match against Burnley. From the evidence of those games, that partnership looks promising, with the energetic Dutchman dovetailing nicely with his Serbian counterpart. That said, Cesc Fabregas has been impressive in that role when deployed there, with the position allowing him to orchestrate the play from deep and showcase his impressive array of passing. Indeed, his immediate understanding with Diego Costa in the 2-1 win over Olimpija Ljubljana suggested that they could evolve into a very fruitful partnership, hopefully similar to that enjoyed between Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba for many years.
One of the surprises of the past few matches has been that Fabregas has actually looked far more effective in a more withdrawn role than when he has been pushed into the hole behind the main striker. In the nominally more defensive position he has been afforded more time on the ball and subsequently more time to pick his pass. Conversely, when he has played further forward he has seen play bypass him for long stretches, with him often dropping further back in order to get on the ball. Of course, it is well known that he is more than capable of playing as the No. 10, though if initial impressions are correct, it looks like he might be better suited at Chelsea by nestling in next to Matic.
Of the other new boys to feature, Costa has stood out the most. His clinical finish against Olimpija was pleasing to see, but just as encouraging has been his strength and work rate. He has taken a competitive edge into these matches that will only grow stronger when the real action starts. The Spain international's refusal to be knocked off the ball combined with a willingness to work for the benefit of his teammates and his coldness in front of goal promise to reap rewards for the Blues in the months to come.
Filipe Luis has caught the eye slightly less than his former Atletico Madrid teammate, which is the unfortunate consequence of being a defender, though he has shown he has the strength and intelligence to succeed in the Premier League. More importantly, however, he has exhibited the ability to cross the ball accurately and dangerously; a quality that Chelsea have lacked in full-back positions since the departure of Juliano Belletti.
Further back, goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois might have suffered a 3-0 defeat in his first outing for the club, but with two penalties and a pinpoint header beating him he can certainly be excused. However, he still managed to show a glimpse of his genius when he somehow kept out a point-blank effort from former Chelsea striker Franco Di Santo. The tussle for a first-team spot with Petr Cech will be intriguing, not least due to the Czech's own decent form in preseason, though one gets the feeling that Mourinho will eschew sentimentality and give the young Belgian stopper the nod on the opening weekend.
One curious tactic that has been employed by Mourinho has been the stationing of Fernando Torres in a wide berth as one of the trio of players supporting the main striker. This selection has seen Torres interchange positions with Costa throughout the game; whether this is a serious consideration for a starting XI remains to be seen. With more natural fits such as Eden Hazard, Andre Schurrle, Mohamed Salah, Oscar and Willian at the manager's disposal, it would appear more likely that this setup would be used when chasing a goal late in the game, and was used last season when both Demba Ba and Torres were on the pitch at the same time. And, lest we forget, it was in that very role as a substitute that the Spaniard won the corner from which Chelsea equalised in the Champions League final two years ago. But given that Mourinho used striker Samuel Eto'o as a regular wide man during their time together at Inter Milan, the prospect of Torres beginning the occasional game on the flank cannot be totally discounted, however ineffective his performances have been over the past few weeks.
With the myriad of formations and the interchange of personnel around the pitch, Mourinho is rightly covering his bases and preparing for as many eventualities as possible. It must also be remembered that he has been shorn of the services of Hazard, Willian, Schurrle and Oscar, who have only rejoined their teammates in the past week due to extended involvement at the World Cup. That quartet forms arguably the most integral part of the squad.
Those four might not be deemed sharp enough to start the season at Turf Moor, but once they are fully re-integrated there will be a raft of talented options for the Special One to choose from. It all seems to be coming together rather nicely.