The theory says that if you bring in a series of new players and adopt a new style, it will take time for things to settle; the practice says that Chelsea is four points clear at the top of the Premier League. Only once before, in Jose Mourinho’s record-breaking second season at the club in 2005-06, has it had more points at this stage of a Premier League season – and perhaps even more important than that, given the demands of the owner and the recent history of pragmatism, it is playing wonderful soccer.
Roberto Di Matteo, the Chelsea manager, was cautious after Saturday’s 4-2 win at Tottenham.
"I think I would say it is too early to say that," he said when asked if Chelsea is now favorite to win the league. "With 30 more games I still think that you have to wait until the Christmas period."
His reserve is understandable; Chelsea, after all, is a habitually good starter. While 22 points from eight games is impressive, only once since Roman Abramovich took over the club in 2003 has Chelsea had fewer than 19 points at this stage. The difference this time, though, is partly the range of attacking options and partly that Chelsea has already won away at two of last season’s top four, Arsenal and Tottenham.
The movement of the creative trident of Juan Mata, Oscar and Eden Hazard has been breathtaking; the change from the direct doggedness that won the Champions League last season is startling. Mata was the star on Saturday, scoring twice and laying on the fourth for Daniel Sturridge. He is a pleasingly unflashy, humble player, blessed with vision and the ability to thread passes through the tightest gaps. Oscar is remarkably mature for a player who only turned 21 in September, inventive and intelligent and, as Di Matteo has been at pains to point out, extraordinarily tactically astute for one so young. Hazard, all quick feet and darting bursts, is the most eye-catching of the three and also the most unpredictable. He was relatively quiet on Saturday, but his first-time pass around the corner for Mata’s second and Chelsea’s third was the product not merely of great technical ability, but also of an instinctive awareness of the distribution of players on the pitch.
The 19 goals Chelsea has scored – which would have been more with an on-song Fernando Torres – is actually fewer than after eight games in each of the last two seasons, but is still the club’s third-highest tally at this stage under Abramovich. Soccer, though, is a game of balance and the one worry is that the extra fluidity comes at the cost of defensive solidity. With a highly mobile attacking midfield three, the danger is that the opponent, when it wins the ball, can advance a full-back unchecked, and that can leave Chelsea’s full-backs isolated and vulnerable.
Earlier in the season the problem had seemed mainly down the Chelsea left, as Eden Hazard drifted infield off the flank. Both Reading goals, for instance, in its 4-2 defeat at Stamford Bridge, came from moves that were initiated from the space in front of Ashley Cole. Gervinho’s goal for Arsenal in its 2-1 defeat to Chelsea came from a right-wing cross after a move in which its right-back, Carl Jenkinson, had been heavily involved.
Stephan Lichtsteiner, the Juventus right wing-back, caused Chelsea all kinds of problems in the 2-2 draw in the Champions League. On that occasion, Ramires was preferred to Mata on the right, and did an excellent job of stymieing the forward surges of Kwadwo Asamoah from left wing-back. That game, in a sense, showcased the two extremes of wide play in a 4-2-3-1: Hazard skipping all across the front line, creating chances but leaving spaces; and Ramires, disciplined in performing his defensive duties but creating little.
Playing Mata, Oscar and Hazard offers great flair and attacking variation – and Mata, as he showed in robbing Kyle Walker to lay on the fourth goal on Saturday, does rather more tracking back than Hazard – but it also places great strain on the two holding players. John Obi Mikel seems to have settled quickly into the habit of drifting left to cover for Hazard, and Ramires, playing in a deeper role, has the energy and intelligence to cover to the right. But they can never cover all of the pitch all of the time and will always be susceptible to attacks that move the ball rapidly from one flank to the other.
Between the two Tottenham goals, for instance, Gylfi Sigurdsson twice drifted behind an exposed Branislav Ivanovic to find shooting opportunities. One effort was deflected over and one well saved by Petr Cech, but it demonstrated where Chelsea’s weakness is and, inevitably, raised the question of how much more threatening Spurs might have been had it had the pace and directness of Gareth Bale on that wing.
Better and more organized teams than Tottenham may be able to exploit that, but then Di Matteo may opt for a more cautious approach against them, as he did against Juventus. For now, Chelsea fans can rejoice in the fact that their team does not merely sit top of the table, but are playing the most aesthetically pleasing soccer in the country.