There are two prevailing schools of thought on the best way to win a soccer game.
The first, most famously proselytized by Johan Cruyff, holds that you score one goal more than your opponent does.
The other, taking the opposite tract, recommends that you concede one goal less than your opponent does.
The best teams manage to consolidate these competing ideologies by abiding to the central tenets of both – to both attack and defend well. Simple enough. Right? Yet that’s where most every team falls short.
When it travels to Leeds United, a second-tier Championship side, on Wednesday to contest the League Cup quarterfinals, Chelsea will have come off a schizoid run that goes a long way in explaining the struggles of the defending European champions, who have already been foiled in their quest to repeat.
Ever since Rafa Benitez’s vaunted Nov. 21 appointment – which drew the ire of Chelsea fans, a group not at all fed up with Roberto Di Matteo yet and keenly aware of a Benitez snipe about Chelsea’s “plastic flags” – Chelsea has either been strong in the back; or, strong up top. It has not yet managed to do both at once.
In Benitez’s first two games in charge on Nov. 25 and 28, respectively, the Blues played to 0-0 home draws with Manchester City and Fulham, shutting down two sharp teams while failing to get anything out of their mega-bucks front line. They followed that up with a 3-1 loss on Dec. 1 to newly-promoted West Ham, in which they did neither.
Then, suddenly, Chelsea started scoring. On Dec. 5, they put six past Nordsjaelland, one of the worst teams in the UEFA Champions League, from which it was already eliminated – as Chelsea would be too by the end of the night. Three days later, the Blues scored three more on Sunderland. And on Dec. 13, they did the same against Monterrey in the semifinals of the Club World Cup. Yet in all three games, against weak or dysfunctional opponents, Chelsea gave up too many chances and a sloppy goal that could have been avoided.
In the Club World Cup final against Corinthians on Sunday, Chelsea swung back to the other end of the spectrum. The defense was structurally sound – the moments preceding Paolo Guerrero’s open 69th-minute game-winning header excepted – limiting a Corinthians front line that was both technically and physically gifted mostly to shots from afar. But at the other end, Chelsea never got into a rhythm, mustering only flashes of attacking danger until it constructed a late panicky, offensive.
This isn’t at all out of character for Chelsea. After Di Matteo took over from the fired Andre Villas-Boas in March, he imposed an all-out defense catenaccio system, which he rode to Champions League and FA Cup crowns, relying on late goals to eke out 1-0 wins.
He took the opposite approach going into the new season. Chelsea bought ball-wizards Eden Hazard and Oscar for an arm and a leg (or as billionaire owner Roman Abromovich might refer to it: two nail clippings and some ear wax) to give them a trio of playmakers to field behind the chronically misfiring Fernando Torres.
Early results were spectacular. Chelsea zoomed out to 19 goals, leaking just six, in its first eight Premier League games, winning seven of them and commanding first place. Then the wheels came off. The defense and offense lost their synch, the space between went from being a bridge to a chasm, and Chelsea tumbled to a third place and allowed Manchester United to open up a 13-point gap.
The art of winning soccer can be reduced to turning in complete performances. Chelsea misplaced that ability several months ago. A collective that once played in rhythm has lost track of the beat. Four all-out attackers occupy one half, six defensively-minded players the other. In the middle stands nothing. Hazard, Oscar, Frank Lampard, Victor Moses or Juan Mata make up a trio behind Torres. Oriol Romeu, Jon Obi Mikel or Ramires form a pair in front of the defense and are shackled to their own half. They operate independently of one another, making the incongruous parts mostly ineffectual. Both of them are left to their own devices, which makes it so rare that good performances from the two camps overlap. Chelsea has started winning some again of late, but is far from having figured it all out.
Against Leeds, Chelsea will be given a chance to smooth out some of its kinks, to again build bridges. It will labor under the pressure of advancing to the semifinals, however, since the club looks in no imminent danger of winning anything else this year.
Because if Chlesea wants to salvage anything else from this season, it will have to troubleshoot its structural issues very soon.