Sport Soccer

Tuesday 21 November 2017

Mata offers glimpse of bright new Blues future

More worrying than Chelsea's huge trading losses has been their creativity deficit: a shortfall Andre Villas-Boas was hired to correct. Juan Mata -- Stamford Bridge's answer to David Silva -- scored 24 minutes into his debut as a substitute here, but it will take more than one floating artist to change this team's mechanical tendencies.

This was a dramatic clash between newly promoted provincial England and a multibillionaire's London empire. It featured a mid-air knockout for Didier Drogba, who ended up in hospital, a later red card for the Norwich 'keeper, John Ruddy, and goals for Jose Bosingwa, Frank Lampard (penalty) and Mata, who replaced Florent Malouda moments after Ruddy had jumped for a high ball and rendered Drogba unconscious before he even had time to hit the ground, which he did with an ominous thump.

By the time he recovered his senses, half an hour later, Chelsea had taken an evolutionary step. Mata's cameo on the left reminded the congregation what they have been missing; and when Romelu Lukaku replaced Fernando Torres on 82 minutes it was as if the new Drogba had joined the action.

There was plenty to admire in Frank Lampard's roving and Drogba's old-school play. The missing element has been ingenuity, lightness of touch. At £23m, Mata is a new direction. In the face of Barcelona's artistic supremacy, all of the big European clubs are searching for play-making talent. At a lower level, Norwich are blessed with at least one trequartista: Wes Hoolahan, who was fearlessly ambitious at the head of their midfield before giving way after an hour to Steve Morison, a striker.

A dainty wide player who floats in from the flanks is an asset but the biggest premium is on inventive midfielders who can run the game from the centre. Chelsea hoped Luka Modric would, but may now have to turn to Mata. "Mata found some good spaces today for a player with only two training sessions. The team helped him find some spaces," said Villas-Boas.

In search of a more dynamic set-up, Villas-Boas has been right through the formations book. He has tried 4-3-3, 4-4-2 and 4-1-3-2, which gives flexibility, but Villas-Boas has reached that moment when he must decide: Drogba or Torres? Or both? He has yet to yield a positive outcome. Torres has scored once in 21 appearances, Mata managed to open his own account within 24 minutes, exploiting a bad back-pass with a curling left-foot finish.

Hilario's error in jumping into his own defender for a high ball that fell to Grant Holt to hook in presents another problem for Villas-Boas to solve, with Petr Cech out injured.

But the over-arching task is to break up the team's pounding rhythms in favour of a creative outlook. In time, a Chelsea midfield that can call on Mata and Josh McEachran with Modric or his equivalent will take the team beyond the Lampard-Michael Essien-Mikel John Obi years (Essien is a long-term injury absentee, of course). The Torres conundrum remains but Lukaku looks a prospect, and Oriol Romeu, from Barcelona, has yet to come in.


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