Jos Mourinho lost only his second ever home game in the Premier League on Saturday, with his team falling to a humiliating 2-1 defeat at the hands of an excellent Crystal Palace side at Stamford Bridge
It is difficult to recall a Jos Mourinho team as defensively vulnerable or as soft through the centre as the 2015-2016 Chelsea FC side. Defensive problems that surfaced occasionally over the course of the title-winning season last year are now laid bare for the world to see on a weekly basis, as is the obvious issue with the midfield double-pivot of Nemanja Mati and Cesc F bregas.
One would not blame Chelsea FC fans for wistfully reminiscing about the team that first won the Premier League title in 2004-2005. That Mourinho team conceded 15 goals over the course of the entire season. The current Blues’ side have conceded 9 in just four games.
That incredible discrepancy not only highlights just how different this team is, but also how little it resembles a side that one would normally associate with Jos Mourinho. That, perhaps, is part of the issue. Despite winning the title last season, there is a sense that this team is still in transition. That the back four are not quite on the same wavelength as the midfield in front of them. Just maybe, the underlying issue is not as much the personnel as it is the lack of a clear identity and lack of balance in the current Chelsea FC team.
There were a few silver linings on Saturday, however, in the form of Brazilian teenager Kenedy and academy graduate Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who both made a real impression after being substituted on with the Blues chasing the game. In what was a bad day for Mourinho on the occasion of his 100th Premier League home game, here are five things we learned from the defeat:
1. The midfield might just be a bigger worry than the defence
The central midfield pairing of Nemanja Mati and Cesc F bregas have made a poor start to the season – neither performing individually nor collectively. Last season, they formed the base of a Chelsea FC side that was sweeping aside everything in its path at the beginning of the season. However, the problems with the partnership have been apparent for a while now.
Quite apart from the obvious lack of pace between the two that gives quicker opposition midfielders the chance to get in behind, the pair now seem unable to control the game by keeping the ball, as was the case at times last season. The writing has been on the wall for a while now, even if in invisible ink – masked by the overall grit and determination of the team, and the decisive difference-making contribution of Belgian Eden Hazard. With that now missing, the invisible ink is quickly beginning to lose its effect.
If the Chelsea FC midfield was exposed at times last season (most notably against Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane, but also against Swansea at Stamford Bridge, Liverpool in the Capital One Cup and Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League), it is being routinely exploited this.
Part of that is the poor individual form of Mati and F bregas, with the latter in particular failing to reproduce his attacking form of the first half of last season. However, the issue is deeper than just that. The conspicuous lack of an athletic, box-to-box midfielder who can provide an extra barrier of defence has cost Chelsea FC in the past and continues to do so now. It appears to be far too easy for the opposition to draw the current midfield pairing out or drag them wide, creating huge spaces in the attacking third and exposing the defence.
The problem is exacerbated, of course, by the lack of pace in that central midfield tandem. Once dragged out of position, or beaten by a skilled opposition player, it is very difficult for either of the two to make up ground to recover from their errors. The porosity in the middle of the park is quite possibly an ever bigger issue for Chelsea FC than the defence at the moment, and something Mourinho must look to fix sooner rather than later.
2. Branislav Ivanovi needs to spend some time on the bench
The Serbian has objectively been one of Mourinho’s worst performers this season. Right from his catastrophic performance against Jefferson Montero on the opening day of the season to his performance against Crystal Palace this weekend, the Chelsea FC vice-captain has been in less-than-impressive form.
It does not take a particularly discerning footballing mind to point out the obvious: Branislav Ivanovi struggles against quick, technically gifted players. Given he plays at right-back and as such, is bound to come up against exactly that type of footballer week in, week out, it is a surprise that Mourinho has not seen fit to make adjustments to that area of the defence.
Like with the midfield, the weakness of the Blues’ defence on the right has been noticed in the past. Ivanovi was given the run-around on more than one occasion last season, even against the likes of Nacer Chadli at White Hart Lane and Stewart Downing at the Boleyn Ground. It seems to be far too easy for players to beat the Serbian on the outside, or even just deliver crosses in from that flank, which has resulted in five of the nine goals the Blues have conceded this season.
Perhaps it is finally time for Mourinho to consider dropping one of his favourites, and instead playing C sar Azpilicueta in his natural position whilst drafting in Abdul Baba Rahman to play on the left. Although the Ghanaian may take time to settle in, it is difficult to imagine the Chelsea FC defence doing any worse at this point.
It might be worth noting, also, that Spaniard Cesc F bregas tends to play on the right side in the midfield pivot. Whilst it would be too harsh to blame much of the defensive woes down the right to the former Arsenal FC man, it again highlights how a more defensively capable and more athletic partner to Mati could improve the team.
3. Chelsea FC are still a side in transition, lacking a clear identity
It is a strange allegation to level at a side that so comfortably won the Premier League title last season. However, crazy as it sounds, the Blues are still a side in transition – a side that at best, still look unsure of themselves, and at worst, look quite lost on the pitch in a system that highlights the strengths of some and the weaknesses of others.
Mourinho’s best teams have usually had a clear identity. His first Chelsea FC side, for instance, was one built on a rock-solid defence, power, pace and strength in midfield and one of the most complete strikers in the Premier League era in Didier Drogba up front. The team was lethal on the break, incredibly disciplined and compact when not in possession, and ruthless when it came to exploiting mistakes from the opposition.
The Chelsea FC of 2015-2016 seem to be lacking that same sort of clarity. A more expansive style of football – which is what Mourinho appears to be attempting to move to – does not suit a relatively slow, ageing defence. Conversely, an approach centred primarily around sitting deep and counter-attacking does not necessarily bring out the best in the technical attacking players in the Blues’ ranks.
As such, the team still appears to be in limbo, unable to find the right balance. There isn’t the same sort of steel in midfield, nor does there seem to be an ability to score from outside the box or indeed from set-pieces. The weaknesses in this Mourinho side – and whisper this next bit – are reminiscent of some of the main criticisms levelled at ArsA?ne Wenger’s Gunners teams of the past few years.
The Blues now play a lot of their football around the opposition box, but seem to lack the ability to make things happen with a set-piece or a long-range effort when they are unable to penetrate a resolute defence. The notion that the team is still unable to sustain a certain way of playing throughout the season is reinforced by the contrasting style of football played in the previous two seasons.
By his own admission, Mourinho has defaulted to a more defence-based approach with Chelsea FC in the second half of both seasons. In 2013/2014, it came after conceding seven goals in two successive games against Stoke City and Sunderland respectively. Last season, it was after the humbling 5-3 defeat against Tottenham at White Hart Lane on New Years’ Day.
Sooner rather than later, Mourinho needs to strike that balance and pick the personnel that best suit the style of play he chooses to go with. Although he is a manager that, more than most others, sets up differently in a tactical sense depending on the opposition, that flexibility cannot (and has not, in the past) come at the cost of compromising the identity of the team.
4. Kenedy and Ruben Loftus-Cheek a major positive for Chelsea FC
There was precious little to celebrate for Chelsea FC fans from Saturday afternoon’s showing against Crystal Palace, but the performances of debutant Kenedy and academy youngster Ruben Loftus-Cheek were definite silver linings.
Thrown on in place of Azpilicueta and Mati respectively, Kenedy and Loftus-Cheek showed not only the right intensity, but also provided the drive from deep to push their team on in the final moments. Kenedy, in particular, has a very positive cameo playing out of position at left-back in his first competitive appearance at this level. The Brazilian also showed off the incredible shot he possesses, striking the ball with the laces of his left boot from distance, even if it was a fairly comfortable save for Crystal Palace keeper Alex McCarthy.
Loftus-Cheek, meanwhile, showed his ability to make driving runs from midfield, feinting this way and that whilst advancing up the pitch and making incisive passes to his team-mates. The two teenagers could not possibly have performed better in the time they had on the pitch, and their commitment must now translate to more minutes on the pitch.
Mourinho has always claimed that he chooses the team based purely on merit and that he is willing to give younger players the opportunities if they are ready. Now is the time to show that he says what he means. Although the two are unlikely to start straight away, they should see more time on pitch, particularly given the poor form of their senior counter-parts.
5. Crystal Palace will finish in the top half of the league
Alan Pardew has done an incredible job with the Eagles since taking over last season, and the club now find themselves in second place temporarily – three points behind leaders Manchester City. The ambition of the club was quite evident in the summer, as they completed the signing of France international Yohan Cabaye from PSG.
That ambition now seems to have translated to their football on the pitch, seemingly coursing through the veins of Palace’s players. Pardew’s men are resolute in defence and extremely dangerous in attack, with the pace and strength of Wilfried Zaha, Yannick Bolaise, Bakary Sako, Jason Puncheon and Connor Wickham amongst others.
The Eagles refused to cower down even after Chelsea FC scored their equaliser, and got their just rewards after once again wreaking havoc in the Blues’ penalty area. If their current form is anything to go by, Crystal Palace will claim more major scalps in the league as the season progresses, and should have few problems finishing in the top half of the league.
As for Jos Mourinho, the Portuguese has a lot of problems to fix at Chelsea FC. It is not for nothing that this Blues’ stint was seen as his biggest managerial challenge to date. The club, for their part, should not make any rash decisions, and should back the 52-year-old to get things back on track. A difficult season awaits.