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Know Your Opponent: An Interview With Graham MacAree of We Ain't Got No History

Two brilliant footballing minds representing Tottenham and Chelsea finally come together for the first time to match wits. And Graham and I discussed AVB and Mourinho a bit too.

Ian Walton

The dramatic return of Mourinho to Stamford Bridge has already generated more for fans and non-fans alike to talk about that perhaps even the most optimistic Sun headline-wrier could even have predicted. One man who is in a prime position to talk through developments at the club this season to now, as well as the game coming up tomorrow, is Graham MacAree, who runs undisputedly the highest-quality Chelsea blog on the net, We Ain't Got No History. I caught up with Graham to huddle with fear together and have a little cry chat about the fine details of the London derby.


EF: If I may, I'd like to start of by rewinding back a little bit into last term. Rafael Benitez was obviously a controversial successor to fan fave Di Matteo from day one, and many Chelsea fans feelings towards the Rafalution only soured further as his time at the club went on. Equally, however, most would argue that a third-place finish and a European trophy ultimately constituted a decent, if not earth-shattering, outcome for any top Premier League club. All of this of course has repercussions on the present season, as the appointment of Mourinho could be seen as Ambramovich 'righting the wrong' for the fans, so to speak. Thus, to summarize your feelings on last season, I put the question to you- was there, in fact, a wrong to right? Rafa Benitez, Fat Spanish Flop or a man just waiting to be retrospectively vindicated by history?

GM: Fun fact: Between Roberto di Matteo's sacking and the end of the season, Chelsea managed 1.96 points per game. That was fifth in the Premier League during that time frame, behind the Manchester club, Tottenham and Arsenal. Chelsea were also knocked out of the Club World Cup by Corinthians, the League Cup by Swansea City and the FA Cup by Manchester City (that last one is understandable, of course). A Europa League win in which they were outplayed by Benfica isn't enough to retroactively judge Benitez a success -- Amsterdam aside, his team performed poorly and had bad results.

EF: On, then, to the present day. If you can possibly put it in to a paragraph or two, how do you feel about the return of Mou to Stamford Bridge thusfar? Was he backed with the right signings to begin with? Are you right behind the tactical reorganisation that Mourinho has tried to put in place from day one? What would you say are the key strengths and weaknesses of the New Old Chelsea?
GM: Mourinho's return has been generally positive, although it's clear that there are still holes in the team. In short, he's trying to put together an attacking team that's also capable of defending, which Chelsea haven't had since Carlo Ancelotti's first season (Andre Villas-Boas tried, but didn't really get the 'defending' part down too well. Di Matteo's outfit was unbalanced, Benitez's was static. Mourinho's trying to mould Chelsea into something approximating his Real side -- dominate possession against weak sides while being able to counterattack effectively against the strong ones. That's a laudable goal, but it'll take some time, and there will be growing pains.

The key strengths of this Chelsea team are obviously in the attacking midfield. In Schurrle, de Bruyne, Hazard, Oscar and Mata there are five players who are absolutely deadly, and they combine very well with the fullbacks. That's not really a surprise to anyone who pays attention to football.

In terms of weaknesses, I remain unimpressed with the midfield pivot, and with Marco van Ginkel out for most of the season one of the primary backups to that position is now out of the picture. But the real problem lies at centre forward -- nobody bar Didier Drogba has played well there for years, and none of the current crop are anywhere near getting it done.

EF: Let's talk team selections- specifically, about Mata and David Luiz. What are your feelings on how Mou's return has shifted the balance of favour away from the two? Do you think a place can and should be found for both of them in this current side ?
GM: David Luiz has missed one match since he returned to fitness, so it's difficult to suggest that Mourinho's return has been negative for him (when he got hurt, Mourinho said something along the lines of 'Chelsea are a better team with David Luiz and he must play always'). Mata's a different story entirely, and I'm not really sure how to feel about it. If Mourinho can get him to defend effectively, he'll avoid the pitfall that felled di Matteo when he played Hazard-Oscar-Mata in the attacking midfield band, namely that there was no cover for the defence. Obviously, Mourinho thinks he can pull that off, otherwise he wouldn't try it. If so, Mata will be a better player for it. Long term, both David Luiz and Mata should be starting. Obviously.

EF: This season has seen the long-awaited breakthrough of a number of Chelsea's wonderful (mostly Belgian) young talents in to the first team. Who are you earmarking for the brightest future for the club going forward? Or is it one of the youngsters the club has out on loan?
GM: It's hard to say. Thiabuat Courtois is probably the best bet to have a long career as a superstar, but he has to go up against Petr Cech soon and it's not at all clear who turns out to be the winner. Of the rest of the loanees and youth players, a number stand out. Nathanial Chalobah's been excellent, Romelu Lukaku's a beast, and the likes of Lewis Baker and Ruben Loftus-Cheek have impressed me a lot as well. Outside of those guys, Chelsea have a number of players in the first team who are still very young. Oscar, Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne would all have qualified for the under-21s last season, for example, and they're already top-level players. If I had to pick, then, out of all the youngsters, I'd go with Oscar. His game's the most balanced.

EF: Advancing on to the game in hand, what is your favourite memory of this tie in the past?

EF: Obviously, the first meeting of Mou and AVB as rival managers is a tabloid goldmine for so many reasons. I don't want to get too bogged down in dissecting the layers of narrative around this game- but what are your feelings on AVB now there's clear blue daylight between his time at Chelsea and the present day? Have you seen much change, positive or negative, in his management style and tactical approach since his time at the Bridge? Is he a more mature, and more dangerous counterpart for Mou to be lining his team up against than he was two years ago, or still very much a student needing one more good lesson?
GM: I think Villas-Boas mentioned that his time at Chelsea taught him a lot about man-management and how to deal with different players at a club with established superstars. In an ideal world, you don't have to deal with egos, but in reality I'd have to imagine that Chelsea are a very difficult club to get to grips with, and Villas-Boas' corporate style didn't fly well. His tactics were also a little naive with Chelsea. But he's a very bright guy, and he's clearly worked on those flaws to become a much better manager than he was two years ago.

EF: Tactics- let's get down to the nitty-gritty stuff. How would you set up Chelsea with the resources at hand to take all three points at White Hart Lane?
GM: There are a couple of key weaknesses in this Spurs setup. The most obvious is that the midfield is more about energy and brute force than creativity, and that means that they need to move out of position to join the attack. They're both easier to defend against and easier to counter through than a passing midfield. Conversely, buildup play against them is also more difficult. The other weakness is that the Tottenham fullbacks are possessed with more athletic ability than sense, and are prone to positional mistakes and leaving spaces in behind them. With Hugo Lloris able to sweep up behind his defensive line if the ball's played centrally, attacking the space behind Kyle Walker and Danny Rose makes the most sense for Chelsea. The question is whether or not anyone will be attacking the crosses.

Defensively, I'd play a medium block with Mikel and Essien in central midfield with a Terry-Cahill centreback pairing. The idea would be to cut off Soldado's chances in the box and force attacks to come from deeper. Once more players are committed to the attack, cycle the ball to the wide forwards and get forward as fast as possible.

EF: Where do you think the key battles are likely to take place on the day?
GM: Oscar and the pivot versus the Spurs midfield three. If Chelsea lose there, they're screwed. Similarly for Tottenham. Realistically, it's likely to be tight and annoying.

EF: You are the AVB to 2004's Jose Mourinho. Who would you identify as the key dangerman for Tottenham on the day, and how do you take them out of the game?
GM: Erik Lamela, although it's difficult to say how exactly to take him out of the game since we've barely seen him play in English football. In general, deny the space between midfield and defence while keeping an eye on the wide players, who've been causing problems for Spurs' opponents all season.

EF: Going forwards, what is your minimum expectation for Chelsea in terms of achievement for the rest of the season?
GM: Challenge seriously for the title. Having to fight for a top-four finish is completely unacceptable. As for trophies, there's a lot of luck involved. Obviously winning one of them would be nice, but in terms of this club progressing the focus has to be on the league.

EF: Finally, can I trouble you for a score prediction?

GM: 1-1. Seems safe.

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