Can England learn from the Di Matteo master class?
Stepping off the plane back from Barcelona, Roberto Di Matteo had every reason to be extremely happy with himself. To mastermind a win over Barcelona once could be coincidence. To do it twice could be chance. But to do it twice in the space of a week with a red carded captain, a defensive injury crisis and a striker whose recent form has left some questioning whether he could hit the side of the Empire State Building? That has to be genius.
When Di Matteo was given the Chelsea interim manager position after the departure of Andre Villas-Boas, he was admittedly taking on something of a poisoned chalice. Many highly rated managers have walked through the doors at Stamford Bridge and been spat out a shadowed version of their former selves. Yet for Di Matteo the role was relatively risk free, and he is now proving that the never say die attitude that he has instilled in his players is paying dividends both at home and in Europe.
The two legged win over Barcelona was the crowning moment in what could prove to be a defining season for Di Matteo. A man who was sacked by West Brom for sticking far too rigidly to a passing ideology seems to have learned his lesson the hard way. Fluidity is the key to success in football and even though Di Matteo has only been at Chelsea for a short period of time, the difference between the performances in the 5-1 FA Cup demolition of Tottenham and the victories against the Catalan giants was there for all to witness.
The dogmatic attitude of the Chelsea side was enough to see off the greatest football team in the world both at home and in their own back yard. Di Matteo simply provided the very best of England and served it up on a plate to showcase to the rest of Europe. All the talk before the first leg had been about how Chelsea would cope with the powerhouse names in the Barcelona ranks, yet all that people were left to digest in the aftermath was just how subdued the likes of Lionel Messi and Daniel Alves had been throughout both games.
Games such as these must want to make statisticians tear their hair out. How is it that Chelsea conceded over 70% of possession in both matches against Barcelona and still managed to win the tie? On the surface it seems highly illogical, but it was very much the way that Di Matteo had set his team up. Provided Chelsea had men behind the ball and were resolute in defence, chasing the ball for possession would have served very little purpose. The Chelsea boss had the foresight and tactical astuteness to see that his side were never going to match Barcelona if they attempted to play like their opponents, and therefore employing defensive and almost negative tactics nullified the potency of the Catalan attack. For someone who lost a job previously for only playing attractive passing football, it represents a remarkable learning curve.
There was something stereotypically English about the whole affair. The ‘backs to the wall’ nature of Chelsea’s style should have definitely served as an eye opener to whoever will take charge of the England national team for Euro 2012 as it proved that England don’t have to play like the current European powerhouses to succeed. By sitting tight and being difficult to break down, England have the potential to cause many top teams problems in Europe in exactly the same way that Chelsea gave Barcelona plenty to think about over their Champions League games. Failure will come when we try and go toe to toe with the likes of Germany and Spain this summer, success may arrive by sticking to what we do best.
All that said, who would have thought that England could be taking tactical lessons from an Italian this summer? There’s not a hint of irony there...