It has been a busy seven months for Roberto Di Matteo since he took charge at Chelsea, but with international players away he has had time to pause and reflect, and sat down with the official website to discuss.
After winning the Champions League and FA Cup at the end of last season as interim first team coach, Di Matteo was offered the manager’s office on a permanent basis, and duly signed a two-year deal. Since then we have continued to make progress, ushering in a number of exciting new talents and rising to the top of the Barclays Premier League table.
It has been widely reported that this season we have enjoyed our finest start to a league season since the 2005/06 season, when we led from the front after winning our first nine games, and went on to lift the trophy in relative comfort.
The difference this time around is that we did not head into the season as reigning champions, or even favourites. Di Matteo has spoken at length of the challenges facing a side that needs to make up a 25-point deficit from last season’s winners, Manchester City, and insists there remains a long way to go.
The Italian is, however, impressed at the work his side has done after a challenging summer.
‘I was hoping for a good start and the response we got from the players was excellent,’ he says. ‘Every win brings that positive mood into the camp, and helps build momentum.
‘Pre-season was a little disrupted by the Euros and the Olympic Games and the players coming back at different dates, so we didn’t have a full or normal pre-season programme, so we were very pleased to go into the league and start well. We felt we needed a good start, but that’s all it is, a good start.’
Six wins and 19 points from seven outings leaves us four points clear at the top, with the manager committed to a 4-2-3-1 shape removed from the traditional Chelsea 4-3-3. It was a change he implemented after replacing Andre Villas-Boas in March, and Di Matteo believes it is a case of finding the system that best fits the group.
‘You always look at the group of players you have available. We changed it last season and the players found themselves comfortable with the system,’ he explains. ‘It worked well for us and has given the team a solid basis to work on, so we continue with it. It’s a basic system that offers flexibility during the games, but the shape of the team is most important when we’re not in possession.’
One man whose role has altered slightly is John Mikel Obi, an ever-present thus far in the league, who has shared defensive midfield duties with one of Frank Lampard, Ramires and the now departed Raul Meireles. Oriol Romeu has also played there when Mikel hasn’t. The Nigerian’s good work is rarely highlighted, but he has done enough to earn recognition within the camp.
‘Over the years he has been almost ever-present, and he has been very important over the back end of last season and this season he started in good form,’ Di Matteo says of the 25-year-old. ‘We all make mistakes in games and I don’t think he gets the credit for the work he does for the team.
‘It’s a thankless task really, and I understand because I played in that role myself a little bit, and it’s a role that is important for the team. His team-mates and the management team understand and appreciate it, but maybe the fans are more focused on the more creative players and goalscorers, but that role is vital in our team.
‘He and the player alongside him have to have a good understanding and communication, so that we always have one of the two behind the ball who is able to provide an outlet for us, to switch play, and also be the first player thinking about if we lose the ball, to be able give organisation in front of the defence.’
With a run of games to come featuring Tottenham, Shakhtar Donetsk (in Ukraine) and Manchester United, Di Matteo knows he will have to manage his squad carefully, and intends to rotate his players where possible.
‘If you look at our fixture list it is very demanding and packed for a long time, so undoubtedly there will be time and space for everybody to play and show their qualities,’ he says.
‘We have Tottenham and Manchester United to come, with Shakhtar Donetsk in between so it’s a big period coming up. Hopefully, when this international break is over, all the players come back in good health and we can start again.’
You can hear more from Roberto Di Matteo on Wednesday morning…