Wigan at Stamford Bridge is traditionally a fixture that holds a certain nostalgic value for Chelsea fans. During a landmark season where Chelsea broke the century mark for goals scored, the title was sealed with a resounding 8-0 thrashing of Wigan. Nevertheless, in keeping with the general trend of how the club is run, Carlo Ancelotti was sacked in the most appalling of fashions in the corridors of Goodison Park after finishing a lowly and disgraceful second.
Oh how we would settle for that right about now: Carlo as well as 2nd.
Things moved swiftly post-Carlo and relying heavily on the core of players that have largely helped circumvent the circus upstairs Chelsea managed to secure their first European Cup in the most ridiculous of seasons. How many clubs can genuinely say that a legend of the club as a player delivered so spectacularly as a manager?
However, this is Chelsea and given our propensity to be masochistic we are currently “moving in the right direction” (Ron Gourlay, in his typical idiotic toad-like manner) under Rafael Benitez. That right direction has seen the gap between Chelsea and Manchester United quadruple, the style of attacking football disappear, confidence amongst the squad seep to the lowest it has been in years and a fan base united only by utter disgust at the board and buffoon managing the team.
This is the first time I can remember feeling so completely detached from the football club I have grown up watching. Taking in comments from friends, family and social media over the past day has been telling – no one is expecting us to pick up three points. The most positive endorsement of the Benitez era was someone stating they would “take a 1-0”. While history does not often dictate the results of football matches this is a Wigan side that we comfortably beat 2-0 earlier in the season and frequently have scored more than 3-4 goals against.
On paper (that greatest of clichés) we should have too much for them. Yet recent form would suggest this being another struggle. Recently we have developed an alarming inability to hold a lead against cannon fodder, failed to break down teams who simply play deep and are continually overrun in midfield. It is simply not the form of a top four side; amongst the fans there are concerns about finishing outside the European places for a second season running.
While Benitez’s tactical inflexibility and baffling changes do fall upon his shoulders, the imbalance of the squad is not. Whoever decided to keep Torres as the only striker in the summer clearly has a lot to account for and as an aside had Di Matteo been given Ba or another he may well still be here. We seem to have signed a team full of trequartista types (for the football hipstery, I apologise) with the vision of Barcelona in blue being the end goal.
The likelihood of a side containing so many intricate flair players winning the Premier League title is quite remote and Chelsea has always been at their best with robust players. We were screaming out for a tall, technical, aggressive and athletic midfielder in January – Etienne Capoue, Kevin Strootman et al being the optimum in age, cost and ability. Yet Chelsea signed Ba and sat idly by as Newcastle scooped up Mouusa Sissoko and Tottenham Lewis Holtby.
While having more variety in the squad would benefit Benitez it is his tactical deployment of certain players, notably Oscar, which has irked the most. Oscar was brilliant at Wembley as he drifted around the midfield area picking out passes and generally dictating the tempo of the game when Brazil was in possession. Benitez, however, would rather place Oscar on the right wing and play him simply in straight lines – treating a classic Brazilian number 10 as Dirk Kuyt Mark II™.
The intelligent linking of the three amigos was a feature of Di Matteo’s Chelsea, who for all his faults had a fluid side developing. He allowed them the freedom and the trust to make the correct decisions on the pitch to decide who went where. Now we are seeing a supposed tactical manager negating some of his best players due to his own tactical rigidity.
If anything the recent malaise has highlighted just how important John Obi Mikel is to the current Chelsea side. He certainly is not unanimously well liked by supporters, but he is criminally underrated by those who judge him on snippets and not his control of a match over ninety minutes. His displays in the African Cup of Nations show the form he was piecing together under Di Matteo.
A more dominant, attack minded Mikel has been the outstanding player in this tournament and his ball circulation has allowed Nigeria to dominate their opposition. Chelsea’s midfield has been porous at best in his absence; with no tangible holding player the exposure of the back four has at times been farcical. The sooner he returns the better.
The game itself should follow a typical Benitez affair. Though naturally as I have predicted a boring stalemate we will tonk them by six goals or more. Wigan’s formation is likely to cause Chelsea some issues as their midfield do a good job of dictating things. Ramires is desperate for form and Lampard is being asked to play more football than he should be of late. The return of Eden Hazard should take some of the creative burden off of Juan Mata. David Luiz despite all his detractors has statistically been at the heart of Chelsea’s best defensive displays this season and is a welcome return.
If Benitez picks his usual team expect Mata, Hazard or Lampard to make the difference. Just please stop with the like-for-like changes – if we need to win a game swapping centre backs and full-backs is not revolutionary, it is just idiotic. Similarly, swapping strikers… to hold onto a lead…
I will stop before I start again.
Follow Joe on Twitter: @JoeTweeds