I’ve always been a fan of Juan Manuel Mata García. He’s quick, he’s small, he’s got excellent technique and loads of ability and he’s exciting to watch. He represents everything that the modern game wants in a player and embodies the ethos of Spanish football. Technically gifted, intelligent players, who keep possession of the ball. The game has changed, with new rules on offsides, the field of play has been opened up and where as in the early 90’s space was at a premium and size and strength were vital traits to have for most players who had to battle for the ball, the game now operates on an entirely different level. A new breed of smaller, quicker, more technical players have come to dominate world football led by the Spanish national team at international level and Barcelona at club level. They pass the ball to such a high standard and press so hard high up the pitch to win it back that the greatest managers working in football today have been left stunned and searching for answers. Well I would point you in the direction of an old adage: “If you can’t beat ’em join ’em”, Chelsea have opted for this approach and have paid Valencia a reported £23.5 million for the little Spaniard’s services.
Usually a signing like this would get me excited and I would be eagerly awaiting his first appearance in a Chelsea shirt to see what he can do and what he has to offer the premier league. This season things are different, the main reason being that his first appearance for Chelsea could likely be this Saturday against Norwich. Never in recent times have Norwich had to cope with a player who has so much flair and in captaining Spain’s Under 21’s to the European championship this summer, Mata has shown that he’s not a skilful adolescent, he’s a mature leader.
So how do you stop him and to a larger extent Chelsea? That is the problem faced by Paul Lambert this Saturday in what will be his biggest test so far as Norwich manager. The approach will tell us a lot about how Lambert thinks we can find success away from home this season against the better sides, so it will be interesting to see the shape of the side he picks and who he puts his faith in. The Wigan game feels like a one off, with the side selected against Stoke to me feeling like the direction the team is heading in, with perhaps the selection of Chris Martin being the only big surprise. But when faced with so much attacking talent, how will City line up? West Brom showed that if you have a go and get in their face, Chelsea are vulnerable, Shane Long profiting from a mistake from Alex who must have been watching Richie De Laet at Wigan. The key for me is having a threat but without committing players forward. Crofts and Johnson will almost certainly start in the centre of midfield, but will Lambert throw another body in with them?
I’d certainly be tempted to match Chelsea’s 4-3-3 with a 4-5-1 of our own. I’d probably opt to use Fox in a deeper role to add an extra layer of protection in midfield, or if you wanted to be more positive Surman or Hoolahan sat in front of Johnson and Crofts behind a lone striker in Grant Holt, whose job would be to keep possession and close down the Chelsea back line keeping them honest. This is perhaps not the best role for him and were Vaughan fit I’d be tempted to go with him for his extra pace, but Holt does provide that x-factor and leadership which is so hard to quantify. After their displays against Stoke I expect both Bennett and Pilkington to start and their pace should give us some threat on the counter. As for the back line I expect Naughton to keep his place ahead of Russell Martin who was disappointing on Tuesday night captaining the side against MK Dons. The other question which needs an answer is who will partner De Laet at centre back. Whitbread looked slow even against MK Dons, Ayala looked lightweight and may not be fit, Barnett is available after serving a one match ban, but having made such a costly error against Stoke, will he be trusted to handle the much more daunting task of Chelsea? None of the choices inspire confidence and Elliott Ward will be hoping that if he can prove his fitness than the second centre back berth will be his, but perhaps the Chelsea game comes too soon for that.
Often these games are more about the attitude and application the players show than the result, an encouraging performance can do wonders for the confidence even if the result goes against us. In all honesty I can’t see us coming away from Stamford Bridge with anything, but after the game I think we’ll have a much better idea of what the team will look like for the rest of the season.
Trying to come up with a game plan against Chelsea is a case of catch 22… we can’t afford to sit deep as players like Mata are fantastic at finding little gaps and through balls and they have so many players who are great at shooting from long range. We can’t push up because any space in behind our back line and we will be horribly exposed by the pace and movement of Torres. If we do sit deep and manage to stop them playing and Ruddy deals with the long range shots then they have Drogba to thrown on who can simply batter us out of the way in similar fashion to the way Kenwyne Jones did for Stoke, except Drogba offers much greater quality and he’ll be getting on the end of far better crosses. We have to track runners from midfield, where Lampard will time his runs and burst into the box, it might even be worth man marking him. Set pieces are another danger, both in terms of the quality Chelsea have at hitting a direct shot on goal, but also in their sheer physicality from crosses and corners, it’s at this point where if I were a manager I’d want to go and sit in a dark room alone and cry, for an extended period of time.
Suddenly the gap in class hits home, suddenly being in the Premier League is real, suddenly we realise that the team we’re playing has just gone out and spent over £20 million on one of the future stars of Spanish football. Norwich’s last trip to London for a league game was Crystal Palace at the end of January, a game that ended 0-0, we returned to Selhurst Park in pre-season and were beaten, our next visit to London promises to be vastly different in any number of ways.