The speed and skill provided by Arjen Robben and Damien Duff on Chelsea's flanks is the next subject analysed in our look back at the historic 2004/05 campaign, a decade-and-a-half on...
‘I see him playing outside left, his natural position; I see him playing outside right. I see him playing together with Damien Duff, changing positions.’Jose Mourinho
The 2004/05 Premier League title was won and lost between 23 October and 2 February. The first date marked Arjen Robben’s competitive debut for the Blues, a thrilling cameo at Stamford Bridge against Blackburn Rovers; the latter date, the return match at Rovers’ Ewood Park home, saw the Dutch winger suffer an injury which, to all intents and purposes, brought to an end any further meaningful contributions he would make to our season.
In between times, Jose Mourinho’s side won 14 matches and drew two, with no defeats. Arsenal, our nearest challengers, could only muster seven victories during the same period of time. The Blues were setting a searing pace which few sides in Premier League history could live with, and Robben was at the forefront of that.
The Dutchman had almost signed for Manchester United earlier in the year, only for negotiations between the Red Devils and PSV Eindhoven to come to a standstill over the transfer fee. Chelsea swooped, agreeing the transfer in March which would see Robben join the club after Euro 2004.
The move appeared to be a masterstroke by the time the tournament in Portugal came to a conclusion; Robben starred in the Netherlands’ run to the semi-finals, converting a penalty against Sweden in the quarter-finals which secured the nation’s first-ever win in a shoot-out.
By the time he arrived at Chelsea, Mateja Kezman had joined him in west London - the duo were dubbed Batman and Robben during their time together in the red and white stripes of PSV, and the early pre-season form suggested they could recreate the magic wearing Chelsea blue. That is, until the 20-year-old was injured by Roma’s Olivier Dacourt on our US tour, delaying his competitive debut for the club by two months.
His brief performance against Blackburn served notice of what was to come. ‘Robben is back and he's a super player,’ said Mourinho after the game. ‘The way he played was not a surprise for me but probably surprised Chelsea fans. It was good for them to get a sniff of Robben.’
It wasn’t a surprise to the players, either. Eidur Gudjohnsen, who netted a hat-trick on Robben’s debut, revealed: ‘He's very quick, very direct and exciting, both for the fans and for a forward to play alongside. He can rip defences apart. He's a big player to coming into the team at this time.’
The worry for Blues fans, however, was that the new boy’s return to action would come at the expense at Damien Duff, the Irishman having established himself as the most popular signing of the nascent Roman Abramovich era but yet to show his best form under Mourinho.
There was to be no need for concern. The manager was quick to point out the tactical versatility Robben brought to the side: ‘He is not a pure striker but he is an attacking player. He gives me much more options. I see him playing outside left, his natural position; I see him playing outside right. I see him playing together with Damien Duff, changing positions. I see him playing in a pure 4-4-2 as a second striker. I see him playing in a 4-3-3 behind the strikers.
‘He is a top-class player and top-class players adapt to different positions and different styles.’
What followed was something that has rarely been seen in English football. When it comes to looking at partnerships in a team, the obvious ones are highlighted: centre-back, central midfield, up front and, in a 4-4-2, the understanding between winger and full-back. Soon, pundits would be discussing the wing pairing of Duff and Robben; interchanging at will, crossing the ball to one another, bewildering full-back after full-back.
Following Robben’s introduction to the side, the Blues went on a run of scoring four goals in a game six times in the space of nine matches, a far cry from the early season form which had seen us net just eight times from our opening nine fixtures.
The drubbing of Blackburn was followed by a similarly devastating burst of goals against West Bromwich Albion at the Hawthorns, instigated by the half-time introduction of that man Robben. ‘Every time he had the ball the stadium thought the West Brom goal was in danger,’ said Mourinho.
Even when the Baggies brought the scoreline back to 2-1, the spring was quickly taken out of their step. As The Sun newspaper noted, ‘The Dutch destroyer proved his return from injury can transform Chelsea from a team of no-frills grinders into an entertaining attacking force.’
Next up was a home game against Everton, who were just one place and three points behind joint-leaders Chelsea. ‘It’ll be a tough game today,’ wrote JT in his programme notes. ‘They fight for each other, that’s their secret. But so do we!’
Inflicting a first away league defeat on the Toffees was hard work and it took a moment of genius from Robben, who held off the over-zealous attempt at marking him to score a delightful dink over the onrushing Nigel Martyn.
The goal was becoming something of a counter-attacking trademark by the Blues - from one end of the pitch to the other in virtually the blink of an eye, a clearance by Ricardo Carvalho to Robben putting the ball in the back of the net with only further contributions by Kezman and Gudjohnsen in between. Petr Cech perhaps summed it up best: ‘In just three touches we were in on goal.’
With so many dimensions to our attacking play, the question was no longer if Chelsea would score - rather, how many times we would find the back of the net.
- By Richard Godden - Chelsea matchday programme editor
On 30 April at 8pm, there will be a special watch party of the victory over Bolton that sealed our first Premier League title live on the 5th Stand app...