Eden Hazard was generally considered to be Chelsea’s best player last season, and it’s difficult to argue against that, but Chelsea’s most important player was Nemanja Matić. His role in the side is the biggest of the lot. Not only is he Chelsea’s battering ram, adding physical imposition to an otherwise small and lightweight set of midfielders, he’s the lynchpin in their system of pressing and covering, and he’s also the guard of the wall that is Chelsea’s centre backs.
No matter how big or strong the wall, if the guard isn’t at his post, invaders will simply walk right through the door (Shakespeare eat your heart out).
If Matić isn’t at arms, Chelsea suffer, and so José Mourinho must conclude that the way to reinvigorate his team is to get his guard up and running again. At the moment, Matić has gone AWOL form-wise and his side are feeling the effects.
At his best, the Serbian can physically dominate anyone, but it’s wrong to think he’s just all brawn. Despite looking like a big lurch, for his size, Matić has remarkable ability on the ball; surging runs and picking smooth passes becoming a constant sight. But at his worst, and we’re very much seeing that for the first time, he looks like a basketball player trying to squeeze into the back seat of a Mini Cooper – uncomfortable, awkward. He’s a big, physical guy, but he’s timid in nature and softly spoken. Confidence is clearly a big part of his game, and the last few weeks suggest it’s at an all-time low.
It probably sunk to the lowest it’s ever been on Saturday after Mourinho brought him off after 70 minutes having only just brought him on at half time. Sure, Matić has been playing poorly, his performance against Newcastle was woeful, his substitute performance against Porto was even worse, and his 25 minute cameo against Southampton wasn’t much better. Positionally he’s been all over the place, his passing has been well off the mark, and his physical dominance has all but disappeared (Ayoze Pérez getting the better of him physically on multiple occasions during the game at St James’ Park). Clearly we’re witnessing a man suffering from a lack of confidence, so humiliating him like that on Saturday wasn’t the answer.
Mourinho needs to realise that Matić is key for him. The last thing he needs is to lose him, either by destroying his confidence or forcing him out of the club.
Chelsea’s success under Mourinho has always originated from a solid and structured midfield protecting the defence. This season is the first time where a Mourinho team hasn’t had that. The self-belief issues I talked about in part 1, have led to a group of individuals failing to uphold the system of pressing and organisation which had been laid down in the previous two years of Mourinho’s reign.
Watching Barcelona, you begin to appreciate the importance of a team’s’ structure. If Dani Alves is dragged out of his position for any reason, a domino effect takes places whereby the entire team re-shuffles to make up for it; (for example) – Messi drops to cover the right back position, Suárez moves over to cover Messi, Rakitić moves over to cover Suárez, Busquets moves over to cover Rakitić, Iniesta moves over to cover Busquets and Neymar moves over to cover Iniesta. It’s this incredibly disciplined and military-style organisation that make Barcelona so difficult to beat – despite their side severely lacking any kind of steel or physical presence. Mourinho’s sides have always prided themselves on similarly disciplined structures, but as I said, any notion of such a system seems to have vanished thus far.
It’s definitely a confidence issue. Individually the players are making mistakes, this causes disruption in the organisation of the side. Whether it’s a misplaced pass or two, or whether it’s a player failing to track back, ultimately, mistakes mean someone is going to be out of position. To make up for this, someone else is dragged out of their position and it means the structure usually goes up in smoke. Barcelona’s system is controlled, their players know where they must be at all times, in every particular circumstance. But clearly, there isn’t a system in place at Chelsea that tells Ramires when to tuck in after Matić is forced into covering Fàbregas who has been dragged over to the wing because Pedro has failed to track back. You see the problem? Even typing it is complex, I feel sorry for the players who are forced to try and put it into action!
It’s this lack of discipline, of organisation, which has led to Chelsea’s downfall. Carragher and Neville were analysing Chelsea a few weeks back on Monday Night Football and showed some clips of how almost all of their goals conceded from open play this season have resulted from players being out of position, players failing to cover or press properly.
What makes matters worse for Chelsea is that Matić, who already has the double job of marshalling the midfield whilst also protecting the centre backs, has a rather lousy defensive partner in Cesc Fàbregas. Chelsea have two midfielders who stop the opposition from getting at the defence, one of whom cannot defend to save his life. This is no fault of Fàbregas, he isn’t a defensive player, he was brought in to be Chelsea’s playmaker and should be proud of what he achieved last season, but his role in the pivot is making Chelsea suffer, primarily because he forces Chelsea’s main man, Matić, to be constantly on the cover, due to his distinct defensive ineptitude. Matić now has three roles. He’s not only the guard of the wall, but he’s also effectively playing the role of both Chelsea defensive midfielders.
This isn’t an attack on Fàbregas, because asking him to have important defensive duties would be like expecting Azpilicueta to end the season with his goal tally in double figures, he isn’t that kind of player. The mistake is with the selection. The Fàbregas-Matić pivot doesn’t work!
They got away with it when everything was going their way and confidence was high, but once things started going south, the extent of how unreliable that pivot is has been unearthed. Matić needs support, and Fàbregas just doesn’t provide it. The time has come for a change.
That change is 4-3-3. Formations seems to come and go like fashion. Bizarrely, as tactically complex as this sport seems to be, almost every side plays the same formation. At the moment it’s 4-2-3-1. Looking at their players, Chelsea would a suit a switch back to Mourinho’s old favourite 4-3-3. It would allow their flying wingers Hazard and Pedro more space, it would give Ivanović less impetus to be caught out of position by overlapping but most importantly, it would give Matić the support he needs.
He’d have two partners, rather than one, which leaves far more room for error. If Fàbregas is caught out defensively, Matić going over to cover him won’t have such disastrous implications. It’ll no longer leave the entire defence exposed as there’d be another central midfielder to drop in.
Matić with cover is Matić with less to worry about. His confidence will return, and once it does the team will benefit tenfold. Terry and Ivanović aren’t the reckless defenders they seem this season, they’re just suffering as a result of an ill-disciplined and disorganised midfield which leaves them exposed. Getting the midfield right is so essential, and Matić is right at the core. He needs support and he needs his confidence back, and soon Chelsea will have their mojo back.
Mourinho’s seven minute rant on Saturday evening was right, no, not that referees are afraid to give decisions to Chelsea, but that Chelsea themselves are incredibly low on confidence and that the slightest knock will send team morale and self belief spiralling downwards. When you’re not playing well, bad luck is the last thing you need, but like any team, you’ll get your fair share. To get out of runs like this, you need a prolonged period where things just go your way. Mourinho knows this, and is frustrated his side haven’t had it yet.
Getting the engine of his side back up and running smoothly is the first thing Mourinho should focus on. Once that solidity and structure returns, so will the team’s self belief, and all it will take from there is a run of four or five games without a hiccough, and Chelsea will have their swagger back.
4-3-3 is how Mourinho first made his name, and now it’s coming full circle and is what’ll save his season. He’s got a terrific set of players, but just like in his first stint in London, there’s one man in the middle of the park with the ability to glue it all together. The engine, the guard of the wall. Matić has potential to be placed in Makélélé’s bracket one day, but only if his manager fully appreciates his importance and gives him the opportunity he needs. Get the engine fixed, and the car will start running.
Once they get their structure back, their solidity will return, and so will their confidence. Once the confidence returns, life is once again the highway for Mourinho’s
bus car and he can park it drive it wherever he likes.