July 21, 2012

SEATTLE -- One of the greatest tests of Roberto Di Matteo's caliber as he starts his well-earned stint as Chelsea's permanent manager is whether he can turn the team's loss into their gain.

Chelsea would not have won the Champions League and the FA Cup last season without Didier Drogba's talent, experience and force of personality. But the striker's departure gives Di Matteo the perfect opportunity to reshape the team to provide the attacking flair it has too often lacked in recent years. Out with the grind, in with the grace.

Accommodation is best left to hoteliers, not soccer managers. Whatever tactical tinkering the former Chelsea boss Andre Villas-Boas and his predecessor Carlo Ancelotti tried as they sought to bring the best, or the least worst, out of Fernando Torres, the truth was that the team always looked most effective playing a physical, direct style with Drogba as the lone striker.

No more clutching the Drogba comfort blanket now that the 34-year-old has joined Shanghai Shenhua. It is time for Chelsea to attack as a unit with the flair expected of a leading European team -- of the European champions, indeed. The verve that the ultra-demanding owner, Roman Abramovich, is believed to be rather keen to see. After beating Barcelona last season, it's time to join them.

Di Matteo's signings so far this off-season suggest that this is exactly what he has in mind. He has yet to land a new center forward, so has only three: Torres, Daniel Sturridge and Romelu Lukaku. Small, quick, technical attacking midfielders? Plenty.

Eden Hazard has joined from Lille for $50 million and Marko Marin from Werder Bremen for $11 million, while Internacional's Oscar, who is in the UK with Brazil's Olympic team, is set to sign after the tournament for around $40 million. Chelsea are chasing Wigan Athletic's Victor Moses, rated by his club at $15 million.

That's a potential outlay in the neighborhood of $115 million for four quite similar players, with Juan Mata, Kevin De Bruyne, Josh McEachran, Yossi Benayoun, Gael Kakuta and Florent Malouda also on the books. Even if a couple leave soon, as is probable, that's still a surfeit.

The squad balance points to a 4-2-3-1 formation, with three interchangeable creators buzzing around behind a striker, roaming free as David Silva does for Manchester City. It's the antsy toddler theory: attackers wander off at will, leaving opponents in the position of worried parents, frantically looking around to see where on earth they've gone. Fluid, fast and technical, the way of the future and a stark contrast to the rigid, inflexible formations that once dominated English soccer.

It would likely mean the ageing Frank Lampard will have to temper his forward runs and sit in a holding role alongside Ramires, spraying colorful passes like confetti. David Beckham style, if you will.

"If you have a target man you can play with a target man, if you don't you will have to find other solutions to create chances," Di Matteo told reporters in Seattle this week. The Emerald City was Chelsea's first stop of its U.S. tour. The squad is now in New York for a game at Yankee Stadium on Sunday against Ancelotti's Paris Saint-Germain as part of the Herbalife World Football Challenge.

"I think the players we've signed so far are creative, technical, good players, so something maybe we didn't have too many of last season. So I'm very happy that we have more options now with these players," Di Matteo added.

He is a reserved character who saw first-hand as the assistant manager how the old guard pushed back when Villas-Boas tried to implement wholesale alterations last term. So naturally, Di Matteo is preaching evolution not revolution.

"I think there won't be radical changes. We'll try and integrate these new players into our system. Because of the ability they have, along with the players already here, it might change a little," he said.

Like everyone else, the Italian was fascinated that Spain played for much of Euro 2012 without a conventional striker. Not that it's something he's planning to try in west London. "It shows that there isn't just one system you can be successful with. It was interesting to see them play without strikers. I don't think we've seen that many times before," he said.

"It's worked for them and they have so many outstanding midfield players, the rotation and the mobility they have in midfield, the changing of positions they have as well." He added, though, in case you were starting to fantasize: "We're certainly going to play with a striker."

But you almost wonder if Chelsea will really need to, once the roster's set and the season's underway. And that's a stance that would have been unthinkable just three months ago, when Drogba was rampant and essential.

You May Like

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)