Di Matteo's strategy backfires as Chelsea slips up, falls to Juventus
Di Matteo’s decision to sit Torres backfired, but what options did he really have?
Rather than controlling possession, Chelsea often sat nine players behind the ball
Chelsea missed the physical presence of Drogba, which Torres cannot offer
A tactical switch or desperation at a forward in a protracted run of bad form? Roberto Di Matteo tried to explain his decision to play Eden Hazard rather than Fernando Torres at center-forward as the former but it felt far more like the latter as Chelsea slipped to a 3-0 defeat at Juventus that leaves it in danger of being the first defending champion in Champions League history to fail to make the knockout stage.
"We want not to give them a point of reference," said Di Matteo, explaining his selection. "We want to exploit the spaces we create while having more cover when we're defending."
It was a bold claim and one that seemed to provoke the question of how much of a point of reference Torres is these days even when he is playing.
Chelsea's lack of a striker was very different to that demonstrated by Spain at the European Championship in the summer. Spain's aim was control, using Cesc Fabregas to help it maintain possession; it was about getting bodies in the attacking midfield zone to create as many passing options as possible. Chelsea, though, was never likely to control possession. It essentially sat six, often nine, outfielders behind the ball -- although Ashley Cole did get forward at times -- and accepted it was going to have to absorb pressure.
Hazard was not a false nine in the way that Lionel Messi is for Barcelona, foraging deep for possession and looking for runners to go beyond him, not as Fabregas had been in the summer -- when he was effectively a false target-man, holding the ball up and laying it off but doing so from balls played on the ground rather than aerially. He rather buzzed around, his positioning not hugely different to how he usually plays -- in part because he kept pulling left, seemingly trying to work the space behind Juve's right wing-back Stephan Lichtsteiner.
Oscar, meanwhile, was used to try to stifle Andrea Pirlo, as he had in the game at Stamford Bridge. The Brazilian is far more tactically disciplined than many who occupy his position and again performed his role well. More intriguing was the use of Cesar Azpilicueta, nominally on the right of the 4-2-3-1. In fact he played rather deeper than Juan Mata, who drifted in off the other flank, making the shape more of a hybrid between 4-2-3-1 and 3-4-2-1. It gave greater protection to Branislav Ivanovic but only served to encourage Juve's left-wing-back, Kwadwoh Asamoah forward. Ramires, operating in that advanced right-sided role, had kept him extremely quiet at Stamford Bridge but in Turin the Ghanaian was a persistent threat.
The decision to replace Azpilicueta with Victor Moses after 59 minutes was presumably taken in part because Chelsea was behind but also because the plan to stymie the Juve left simply hadn't work. Moses had barely got on the pitch when Asamoah, unchecked, surged onto Mirko Vucinic's pass and pulled the ball back for Arturo Vidal, whose shot went in via a deflection of Ramires.
The plan to force Lichtsteiner by having Hazard run behind him didn't work either. The Swiss right-wing-back played almost as a winger. He'd been a major threat at Stamford Bridge, operating in a zone in which he was barely picked up by Hazard and had space to run at Cole. Here, he in theory had Mata to check him as well, and yet he again and again made late untended runs into the box. It was his close-range volley from a Vucinic in the fourth minute that deflected off Petr Cech's thigh and onto the post and his effort from an Asamoah cross that Cole cleared off the line.
Vucinic too was a constant danger and it was notable that, in the first half at least, for all the problems Chelsea faced wide, it was the holding midfield pair of Ramires and Mikel John Obi who most exercised Di Matteo. Their problem was that while their direct opponents were Claudio Marchisio and Arturo Vidal, Vucinic kept dropping back into their zone. On a couple of occasions he had time to turn and shoot, on others he slipped in the marauding wing-backs and at times he flicked in crosses, always looking for holes in a back four that hasn't kept a clean sheet since the Norsdjaelland game on October 2, 10 matches ago. Only his finishing let him down, as when he played a clever one-two with Martin Caceres with quarter of an hour remaining, only to shoot tamely at Cech.
It was that zone just in front of the back four that cost Chelsea the opener, eight minutes before half-time. As the ball was cleared, Oscar was beaten to the bouncing ball by Pirlo who then, stride by an oddly half-hearted challenge from Ramires and struck a shot that Fabio Quagliarella guided past Cech.
After the second goal, Di Matteo brought on Torres for Mikel but the tactical switch was less the addition of a forward than a switch to 4-1-4-1. The truth is that Torres is so lacking in confidence and the sort of sharpness and directness of a center-forward that he operates almost as a midfielder anyway, making runs and looking to return the ball to players advancing from midfield. Had he started, it's hard to imagine his role would have been much different to that of Hazard; in that sense, the decision to leave him out was less to do with tactics than form. Nonetheless, it was hard not to recall last season and think how useful it would have been for Chelsea to have Didier Drogba, somebody to hold the ball up, chase lost causes and create opportunities through physical presence.
The arrival of Caceres gave Juve a slightly more defensive shape and Chelsea did have far more of the ball in the attacking third in the final 15-20 minutes than in the earlier part of the game, without really threatening. The danger of that, of course, was that it got caught on the counter, which was precisely what happened as Sebastian Giovinco slotted in the third.
Chelsea now needs to beat Norsjaelland in the final group game and hope Juventus loses to Shakhtar in Donetsk. Even if that does happen, though, there are major issues about both its defensive and attacking capabilities.