A year ago next week, Chelsea were about to lose two home games in quick succession to Liverpool, who by the dawn of 2012 were level on points with them. Yet come the end of the season, the gap was 12 points, those defeats – one in the League, one in the Carling Cup – had been forgotten, not least because revenge was achieved in the FA Cup final, and Chelsea were champions of Europe.
They had been the first of the two clubs to change manager but only this season has Roberto Di Matteo begun to bring about the sort of change in style and personnel that Liverpool instigated by replacing Kenny Dalglish with the altogether more modern figure of Brendan Rodgers. The winds of change promise to make Stamford Bridge a gusty place as the teams meet again this afternoon.
The hand of the respective club owners has been discernible in each shift. It was never a secret that Roman Abramovich, thrilled as he was to win the Champions League at last, desired a less functional approach. Di Matteo has never quite explained whether the chicken or the egg came first last summer but creative technical players like Eden Hazard and Oscar arrived, more pedestrian ones like Salomon Kalou and Florent Malouda were sold or sidelined and so a more aesthetically pleasing style evolved, which has not so far been to the detriment of results.
As Juan Mata put it after the dramatic if undeserved victory over an impressive Shakhtar Donetsk in midweek: "We are really enjoying it. We are trying to play good football and, for me, it is the best way to win. We are just trying to take advantage of our qualities offensively and defensively, and it's the best way to win games. Every team has to play with the players they have. Now we have Oscar and Hazard who play really well with the ball. They are able to keep the ball and to assist, and for us it is very good to play like this – this is how I prefer it."
The England manager, Roy Hodgson, was a fascinated spectator at that game and discerned a growing trend that, whether he agrees or not, may make his own job harder until English players adapt to it. "Watching the Chelsea-Shakhtar game it's obvious that the higher the level you play at, the more pace, athleticism and mobility plays a part," he said. "You take all the top teams today in the world and they are going down the route of pace, technique and mobility, as opposed to routes that have been successful in the past, not least for teams like Sweden and England."
Hodgson's consolation is that more and more English players appear to be embracing the new emphasis, as well as an ability to play in more than one position, judging from those making their mark in the younger age groups.
"I was looking at the Under-21 squad that Stuart [Pearce] has picked and there are some very interesting young players in there, people like [Andre] Wisdom, [Josh] McEachran, [Nick] Powell, Tom Ince, Wilfried Zaha – all players who are young but playing regularly in the club teams with the right sort of characteristics for me. The top teams in the country are certainly going down that route of developing players who aren't players who can only play in one position in midfield, but have the ability, athleticism and technique to do either."
Having been at Liverpool, albeit for a shorter time than he wanted, Hodgson is also well aware of some of the young talent there, whether genuinely local or brought in from places like Queens Park Rangers (Raheem Sterling) and Charlton (Jonjo Shelvey). "I've got to say, when I went to Liverpool, I was impressed by the academy and some of the players that we had there. Players that are there today like Andre Wisdom, Raheem Sterling, and Martin Kelly played a lot of games with me in the Europa League in particular. So it's very nice to see them coming through and doing so well, like Sterling two years on, stepping up from being a talented potential first-team player to being a very obvious first-team player."
Although Rodgers may be a proud Ulsterman, he is doing his bit for England by promoting players like those. What is key for him is that they buy into the philosophy and passing style he used at Swansea, but which is taking a little longer to implement successfully, with only two League victories to show for it so far. He goes back today to Stamford Bridge using the 4-3-3 formation employed by Chelsea eight years ago when Jose Mourinho invited him to work with the younger Chelsea generation.
Rodgers was made aware then that the whole Abramovich project was for the long term, which is how he would like it to be at Liverpool. "The mission was to become one of the biggest clubs in the world by 2014," he recalled on Friday. "That was the ambition, so in order to do that they had to win Premier League titles and Champions Leagues. We were coming in to develop a centre of excellence for young players, and running alongside that model was the ambition to be one of the top clubs in the world."
He is fired by the same ambition for Anfield, where that status has increasingly been called into doubt.
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