Are Chelsea's engine room of Matic and Fabregas emulating Keane and Scholes?

The duo are complementing each other perfectly and are powering the Blues towards a genuine tilt at four trophies this season.

Mourinho has put Chelsea's good form down to his new midfield pairing
Mourinho has put Chelsea's good form down to his new midfield pairing

AT THIS STAGE last season Chelsea, having edged past Swansea City courtesy of an Eden Hazard goal at Stamford Bridge, lay third in the Premier League with eight points fewer than they have now. Jose Mourinho and the Blues looked bound for a rare trophyless campaign.

Mourinho is under no illusions as to what has changed in the space of 12 months for his side, who now sit top of the table heading into 2015. “We are a much better team when we have the ball,” he told reporters after Friday’s dominant home win over West Ham.

“Last year we were very strong defensively, very well organised but we lacked a bit of creativity… In this moment we have a good balance. The team is happy to have the ball, but it’s also comfortable when the opposition has the ball. We’re a very good team.”

Of course, balance is only a means to an end, the end all great coaches crave: control.

There are few more controlled teams in Europe than Chelsea right now. They have yet to lose a match in which they have broken the deadlock and six of their 14 Premier League victories have been achieved with a 2-0 scorelines – typically the point at which Mourinho applies the handbrake during games – including each of the last three in this relentless and typically hazardous festive schedule.

Soccer - UEFA Champions League - Group G - NK Maribor v Chelsea - Stadion Ljudski vrt Fabregas and Matic are two permanent fixtures in the Chelsea side Source: Sanjin Strukic/PIXSELL

On Friday West Ham, one of the best five teams in the country over the past 18 matches, were pinned back, picked apart and prevented from forcing Thibaut Courtois into a single save. And as ever, fundamental to the balance and control Chelsea exercised was the remarkably flexible and formidable midfield axis forged this season between Cesc Fabregas and Nemanja Matic.

The unlikely duo have only been playing together a matter of months but already boast the kind of understanding some take years to refine and many never manage to strike up at all. And if Chelsea do go on to win a first league title in four years come next May, they will already deserve their mention in the conversation of the Premier League’s greatest double-acts.

First glance suggests a clear division of roles: Matic as the powerful, lumbering destroyer who snuffs out attacks at source to shatter the will of opponents; Fabregas the gliding creator who picks the passes that break the heart. In broad terms such an assessment is true, but in truth the strokes are also a tad broad.

Pass Masters

Matic and Fabregas exchanged passes more often than any other combination of players on Boxing Day

Matic is no Claude Makelele. The whole middle third of the field is his domain. As a former No.10 he is comfortable with or without the ball in the opposition half, and he thrives on doing far more than simply shifting the ball five yards to someone with a subtler passing eye.

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - West Ham United v Chelsea - Upton Park Chelsea had never really replaced Claude Makelele Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

Fabregas, meanwhile, has succeeded where Juan Mata failed in the eyes of Mourinho because he is a snappy, industrious creator, never content to be a passenger out of possession.

Prior to Boxing Day, both men featured among the Premier League’s top five players for total distance covered this season. The manner in which Chelsea’s midfield engine room is powering Mourinho towards a genuine tilt at four trophies is strikingly similar to what Paul Scholes and Roy Keane achieved together during Manchester United’s historic treble-winning campaign.

The comparison between Scholes and Fabregas, two less-than-supreme athletes blessed with an almost peerless vision and intelligence on the field, is the more obvious. “Paul has no great pace or power, but he makes up for that with his reading of the game, his awareness and his superb touch,” former United youth coach Eric Harrison told BBC Sport back in 2008. “The only current player who would come close to him in that regard is Cesc Fabregas.”

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Soccer - FA Barclaycard Premiership - Newcastle United v Manchester United Keane and Scholes underpinned years of United success Source: EMPICS Sport

Matic and Keane bring the power and drive to their partnerships. But while Keane’s greatness – and on numerous occasions his disgrace – sprang from his fire, Matic appears to have ice in his veins. Even when charging around the field the Serb’s movements and aggression are controlled, directed firmly towards the task at hand. The opponent is simply an obstacle to overcome.

Whether this vastly different outlook allows Matic to match or exceed Keane’s achievements will be intriguing to find out but in terms of the dominance exuded from their position, the two men have few rivals in the Premier League era.

First, Fabregas and Matic must taste glory together by securing a league title that has seemed Chelsea-bound since the opening weeks of the season, in spite of a rejuvenated Manchester City’s best efforts.

Beyond that, they might find even greater glories enjoyed by Scholes and Keane within their grasp.

By Liam Twomey,

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