When Chelsea practiced robust pragmatism under Jose Mourinho – a strategy that restored the club to the top of English football for the first time in 50 years – it made them feared, but not admired.
It was in the best traditions of this reductive approach that last season Chelsea finally became champions of Europe for the first time, Barcelona and Bayern Munich falling victim to their suffocating approach. However, Roman Abramovich was not satisfied.
Chelsea’s mute owner may carry the reputation of a steely oligarch, yet we know he is an aesthete too. This is a man who two years ago spent £250 million on a decrepit St Petersburg island - previously functioning as a military base - with the intention of showcasing his burgeoning collection of modern art in galleries conceived at the cutting edge of design.
When he looked at the squad Chelsea possessed last season, Abramovich apparently saw a similar need for reinvention, for art to overcome function and for old structures to be stripped away to provide creative space.
Because for all their success since the Russian purchased the club in 2003, Chelsea have never been appreciated on an aesthetic level. Even after winning the Champions League, the great Johan Cruyff – football’s self-appointed ideologue for all things artistic – described their penalty shoot-out win over Bayern Munich as “a defeat for proper football. I'd rather not win it, then to have to play this way.”
However, perhaps the most vivid critique of Chelsea’s conception of the game came not from Cruyff last season, but from Real Madrid’s then sporting director Jorge Valdano – a man known as El Filósofo (The Philosopher) - during the Mourinho era.
Reflecting on Liverpool’s turgid victory over Mourinho’s Chelsea at the semi-final stage of the 2006-07 Champions League, Valdano’s analysis is worth revisiting in full:
"Football is made up of subjective feeling, of suggestion and, in that, Anfield is unbeatable,” he wrote for Marca. “Put a s**t hanging from a stick in the middle of this passionate, crazy stadium and there are people who will tell you it's a work of art. It's not: it's a s**t hanging from a stick.
“Chelsea and Liverpool are the clearest, most exaggerated example of the way football is going: very intense, very collective, very tactical, very physical, and very direct. But, a short pass? Noooo. A feint? Noooo. A change of pace? Noooo. A one-two? A nutmeg? A backheel? Don't be ridiculous. None of that.
“The extreme control and seriousness with which both teams played the semi-final neutralised any creative licence, any moments of exquisite skill."
And yet, watching a thrilling 3-2 win over Shakhtar Donetsk at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday night, it was tempting to conclude that Valdano’s criticism has finally, decisively, been answered.
A short pass? John Obi Mikel has made a career or them. A feint? A change of pace? Meet Eden Hazard. A one-two? A nutmeg? A backheel? Well, for the final 10 minutes of the first half, Juan Mata was playing with a dizzying mix of extreme technique and unbridled imagination that made almost anything seem possible.
Notably, Valdano didn’t even dare to posit the possibility of a goal as sumptuous as Oscar’s, an extravagant stroke of his right foot from 40 yards providing the standout moment from a game bristling with entertainment.
S**t on a stick? Not quite. This was a monument to fluid, attacking football. And it was not just Chelsea, far from it. Shakhtar, despite losing their first competitive game in nearly a year due to an injury time header from Victor Moses, were even superior to the hosts for long spells.
Their three of Willian, Henrik Mkhitaryan and Alex Teixeira looked a sliver more accomplished than the Chelsea triumvirate of Mata, Oscar and Hazard; Fernandinho – a wiry Brazilian in a No. 7 shirt – performed with even more poise and penetration than his carbon copy in a Chelsea shirt, Ramires.
This match was not an isolated case. In September, Chelsea were involved in another hugely entertaining contest when drawing 2-2 at home to Juventus, with Oscar scoring another goal that demanded the attention of a continent.
Indeed, their 18 games in all competitions this season have contained 73 goals – a Keegan-esque 4.05 per game on average. Chelsea are now England’s great entertainers, possibly one of Europe’s too.
There is little doubt this shift towards attacking football has come at a cost to defensive solidity - the pendulum’s swing from application to art has seen Chelsea stray firmly into vulnerable territory.
The way Fernandinho sauntered through the home defence, past a slipping Ryan Bertrand, to create Willian’s first goal was an extreme example of the generally welcoming approach that Chelsea took to defending last night.
Time again they were troubled, Ramires and Mikel insufficient cover when the Hazard-Oscar-Mata axis was disrupted and Shakhtar broke. Without a Makelele or Essien they are more exposed to the whims of opponents.
In truth, Chelsea should have lost to Shakhtar last night. The character they displayed in winning the game so late was hugely admirable, yet they were outplayed for the majority of the contest.
They were only level heading into the final seconds of injury time thanks to two horrific errors from Shakhtar goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov - an infuriating anomaly in this otherwise extravagantly-talented team from Ukraine’s industrial heartland of Donetsk.
But it is also pertinent to note that there is clear room for improvement at Chelsea too, and it is here that we come once again to the curious case of Fernando Torres.
Though a reminder of his class was provided prior to kick-off when he received the Euro 2012 Golden Boot award from Kerry Dixon to the cheers of an admirably patient and supportive home support, this was another match which appeared to pass Torres by, his evident qualities again failing to coalesce.
A stumble here, a misplaced pass there: this was instead a mishmash of a performance. Though Torres enjoyed an encouraging opening 15 minutes and even scored when Pyatov’s attempted clearance struck his outstretched leg, this period of promise soon gave way to familiar mediocrity.
Torres still fails to convince as the apex of the Chelsea attack and given that Mata, Oscar and Hazard now lurk in the space behind him, that is borderline unforgivable for a player who has now spent almost two years at the club. Asking Torres to lead the line for this Chelsea team is like arming a Ninja with a baguette.
Still, rumours of a January move for Falcao persist, and what a frightening prospect that would be. Securing the most effective centre-forward in world football would complete this dynamic, destructive and downright delightful Chelsea side, at least in an attacking sense. The vulnerability inherent in their new approach would persist, but this is an element which only enriches the entertainment that Roberto Di Matteo’s Chelsea provide.
No longer the pragmatists they once were under Mourinho and his successors, Abramovich finally has an island of artists in West London to call his own.
- Sports & Recreation