By Liam Twomey
Often when faced with an army of journalists and a barrage of questions after a match, in victory or defeat, Roberto Di Matteo has worn the look of many other Chelsea managers before him – that of a poker player carefully considering his options, acutely aware of the price of a bad choice.
On Saturday, however, after watching his rapidly maturing side emerge from their stiffest test of the league season so far with a win which keeps them top of the Premier League table for another weekend, the mask slipped and he allowed himself the smile of a contented man.
“I think we deservedly won,” Di Matteo said. “I’m really pleased with the way we played, and that gives the team a lot of confidence that we can play differently and change our style a little bit from last season.”
In truth, Chelsea changed their style from the moment Didier Drogba departed Stamford Bridge, from the moment Fernando Torres was anointed his unchallenged successor, and from the moment Eden Hazard, Oscar and others were bought to rouse the Spaniard from his footballing slumber.
Regardless of success or failure, there could be no going back. Chelsea had sent the message they were tired of simply winning their share of trophies, and instead embarked on the far more difficult battle for hearts and minds.
In Hazard, Mata and Oscar they have bought themselves a trio of coveted artists. Yet on Saturday, all three also showed they are determined to ally their creative gifts with an industry which can make them – and their team - champions.
For Chelsea knew what to expect at the Emirates Stadium. They knew they would have to endure pressure, to work without the ball and make the transition between defence and attack quick and seamless when possession was recovered. In short, the kind of disjointed performance which saw them stutter past the likes of Wigan and Reading would simply not be good enough.
And they duly delivered. Arsenal had their moments – Gervinho’s superb first-half finish belied another inconsistent display, while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Santi Cazorla and, most memorably, Olivier Giroud, all spurned reasonably presentable opportunities – but, hassled, harried and worried relentlessly by their determined opponents, they never sparkled.
|6/4||Oscar is 6/4 with William Hill to score at anytime against Nordsjaelland on Tuesday
Instead, what transpired was an absorbing and tight encounter which was ultimately settled on the quality of the visitors’ set-piece deliveries and the confusion and timidity they brought out of the hosts’ defence. Torres volleyed home brilliantly and toiled with varying degrees of success throughout. Mata was the best player on the pitch, and the difference between the sides.
For perhaps the first time this season, Chelsea functioned as a team. The creative trio of Hazard, Mata and Oscar, often fairly content to be passengers when their side are on the back foot, joined Torres in pressing Arsenal high up the pitch, animated with the clear intent to make the task of defending their own rather than simply going through the motions.
Their success meant Di Matteo’s team were never pushed back for long and, unlike in previous meetings between these two sides, went toe-to-toe with the Gunners rather than relying utterly on the physicality of Drogba or the efficiency of lightning counter-attacks.
Arsenal’s defenders were rarely allowed to rest in possession. When they did manage to work the ball into the opposition half, Ramires and Jon Obi Mikel provided a formidable next line of defence.
The duo’s burgeoning partnership is bad news for Frank Lampard but a very promising development for Di Matteo, who now has the dynamism, discipline and mobility he needs in the engine room of the new Chelsea, especially if the Nigerian can produce more performances like this and cut out the damaging lapses in concentration which have marred his recent performances.
In defence the Blues repelled most of what Arsenal could muster, marshalled by an imperious and inscrutable John Terry. His status as the most despised English footballer of his generation now confirmed, he will face many more hostile crowds before he finally decides to hang up his boots but, if Saturday’s performance is anything to go by, the boos will fall on the deafest of ears.
Yet of all the aspects of this Chelsea performance, the defensive contribution of their creative masters was the most unexpected, the most welcome and the most crucial.
If Di Matteo’s men really are to provide a stern challenge to the dominance of Manchester this season, more of the same will be needed.
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