Chelsea had been title contenders from off, along with Manchester City, and even though Arsenal have been the surprise package so far, many experts feel that the race will come down to the two sides in blue come May. Chelsea, despite all the hype surrounding Jose Mourinho’s return, had failed to display the kind of solidity that typified the Chelsea team during Mourinho’s last spell in charge.
Chelsea had a sort of soft underbelly, and top sides kept exploiting that, as evidenced by the dicey showings in the Champions’ League group stages this season. Playing Frank Lampard in a defensive midfield role meant that Chelsea lacked the drive and energy that they required to close down opponents in the middle of the park, something that Jose Mourinho deems to be absolutely essential.
Hence, the €25m January arrival of Nemanja Matic made perfect sense. He would provide the steel and drive that was lacking in Chelsea’s midfield and allow Mourinho to unshackle Ramires and allot him a more dynamic role. If last night’s Chelsea performance is any indication, Mourinho has finally found the solution to his midfield problems.
Matic, playing in a holding role, put in an immense performance to nullify the effects of Yaya Toure and David Silva. He made 14 defensive actions in the game, 11 clearances, 2 interceptions and 1 block, helping out with his defensive responsibilities in a game where Chelsea were under pressure for significant periods. His tackling was not outstanding- he was successful in 3 of the 9 he attempted- but that will improve as he adjust to the pace of the Premier League.
His passing was crisp and neat, finding the target with 23 of the 27 passes he attempted; the 4 misplaced passes were long balls that he attempted. He kept the ball really well and allowed the more creative players around him to flourish. His height made him an impressive aerial threat and he won 3 out of the 4 headed duels he went into. He even sent a rasping drive from 25 yards crashing into the woodwork, which had Joe Hart beaten.
With Matic playing like he did yesterday, Chelsea will have a player who can not only provide a screen in front of the back four, is comfortable on the ball and pick out passes, but who can also prove to be a threat going forward with his shooting and heading abilities. Further, playing him in a defensive role alongside David Luiz allows Mourinho the option of playing Ramires further upfield, utilizing the Brazilians outstanding engine to a greater extent.
Matic is not the player who will win Chelsea the league all on his own, but his arrival has given Mourinho the option to tweak his midfield around according to the requirements of each game, and that may prove to be the telling difference in the title race.
(Stats via Squawka)