Marko Marin is not an elfin warrior. The pint-sized, blond German international may look more like an extra from a Lord of the Rings movie than a professional footballer, but his flashy talents have nothing to do with Middle Earth. Indeed, from the point of view of Chelsea’s many rivals, Marin and his fellow new signings, Oscar and Eden Hazard, are a little too real; their arrival at Stamford Bridge marks the beginning of an aggressive new era.
Over the past three seasons, Manchester City’s owners have routinely outperformed Roman Abramovich in the indulgent-spending stakes. That gradual power shift culminated in City’s Premier League title success. Now Abramovich is biting back.
While City triumphed in England last season, Chelsea saved their champagne for the Champions League final. The Blues’ undeserved yet brilliantly cathartic penalty shoot-out win over Bayern Munich — in Bayern’s home stadium, no less — capped a turbulent season replete with managerial controversy and several dressing-room revolts. Many critics dismissed Chelsea’s triumph, however, claiming the team had won the tournament by “parking the bus” and playing “catenaccio” (By the way, this is one of my pet peeves. Catenaccio is not a synonym for “defensive.” It is a system built around a sweeper and man-marking, two tactical devices that are almost obsolete in modern football). Some even went as far as to blame Di Matteo’s Italian ancestry.
However, as Gabriele Marcotti points out, Roberto Di Matteo is not Italian, at least in terms of his footballing education (he is, in fact, Swiss), rendering those readymade explanations for Chelsea’s defensive play totally ridiculous. (Of course, even if Di Matteo were Italian, those explanations would still be ridiculous – but that’s another story entirely). Indeed, during his spells in charge of West Brom and MK Dons, RDM embraced a decidedly attacking philosophy, which is quite logical, since he was an attacking player himself.
Chelsea’s Champions League win was not a disheartening foretaste of the new era; it was a necessary, if not entirely enjoyable, foundation for it. With only a few months of the season remaining, Di Matteo adopted a system that he could implement quickly, one that he knew would give Chelsea a chance of qualifying for this year’s Champions League. Abramovich – who supposedly likes to see football played “the right way” – understood that, which is presumably why he retained Di Matteo as manager.
So far, Chelsea’s transfer business has been overwhelmingly positive. Eden Hazard, Marin and Oscar are all young, exciting attacking players. If anything, Di Matteo hasn’t concentrated enough on the defense, which such footballing behemoths as Fredy Montero, Chris Wondolowski and Eddie Johnson exploited during Chelsea’s recent tour of the United States. Moreover, Di Matteo hasn’t signed a substitute for John Terry, who has an official FA charge, and a potential suspension, hanging over his head.
Chelsea start the new Premier League season against Wigan at the DW, before home games against Reading and Newcastle. Di Matteo no doubt expects nine points from those matches – he knows that a good start to the season would catapult Chelsea into that most famous of verbal arenas, the Title Conversation.
Since 2010, when the Big Four ceased to exist – the year Rafa Benitez’s Liverpool dropped out of the Champions League places – the top of the English game has been a confused, unpredictable place, a footballing muddle waiting patiently for a new elite to emerge. Manchester City briefly threatened to make it an elite of one. Then United proved they still have plenty in the tank. And Chelsea’s aggressive spending probably makes it a big three, with Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool just outside the bubble.
Believe it or not, whether you think this is a good development depends on more, than whose official club pajamas you wear to bed; it depends on whether you value high-quality competition or simply high-quality football. As Brian Phillips explains, it’s almost impossible to have both. The English football model favors a small, high-powered elite rather than the quintessentially American “level playing field”: in the Premier League, there’s no salary cap, no last-picks-first draft. Instead, teams like Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United get to spend gazillions every summer, which allows them to produce superb, watchable football.
More than any other team in the Premier League, Chelsea are at a crossroads: last season’s Champions League win was Didier Drogba’s final bow, the defining triumph of the “Mourinho Generation.” This summer, Frank Lampard has been linked to Major League Soccer and John Terry has come face to face with the stark possibility of a forced retirement. Lesser characters like Saloman Kalou have also left the club.
The new signings are all attacking players, and they’re all young. Marin, Oscar and Hazard should help Chelsea challenge for honors for the next six or seven years.
If you’re a fan of Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham, or any other team outside of the elite three, that’s a scary thought. Chelsea don’t just want to beat you; they want to rip you limb from limb and win over a few of your fickle supporters in the process.
And, as long as Abramovich stays around, there’s no way you’ll ever stop them.