Chelsea FC have made their worst start to the season since 1978 — a season that saw them get relegated — and although their slump is due to a range of factors both on and off the pitch, Jos Mourinho has more fundamental problems to fix
First things first: the myth that Chelsea FC ‘cruised’ to the title in 2014-2015 must be dispelled. It is true that the Blues were comfortable for much of the season inasmuch as the chasing pack never really threatened to overtake them, but the individual matches themselves in the second half of the season laid bare some gaping holes in the squad that saw Mourinho’s men limp to the finish line, battered and bruised.
It forms a compelling narrative when the dominance of last season is juxtaposed with the catastrophic fall from grace of this one — a train-wreck that fascinates and shocks the neutral in equal measure, and leaves them wanting more — but it fails to explain why the 2015-2016 season for Chelsea FC has been so desperately poor.
The explanations that have been provided thus far may be valid to varying degrees: perhaps Mourinho has ‘lost the dressing room’, perhaps he is past his best, perhaps the players are not showing enough commitment, or perhaps their confidence is being insidiously chipped away by criticism from Mourinho and the football world in general. Perhaps, and this is much more likely, it’s more nuanced than just option A or option B — the result of a combination of several negative factors.
However, it is hard to escape the feeling that the problems Mourinho has might just be more fundamental; more to do with the very identity of his current Chelsea FC side.
For both his seasons in charge since his return to London, the Portuguese has pressed the ‘reset’ button roughly halfway through the season, and has opted for a more cautious approach to meet the season’s objectives. Perhaps it’s worth reflecting on what has worked for the Blues before, and why it isn’t working now.
The Blues were in the ‘Goldilocks Zone’ for the first half of last season
Not coincidentally, Nemanja Mati and Cesc F bregas have been among the worst Chelsea FC players this season. The Blues’ woes are down to the region of the pitch they patrol more than anything else, and it is the breakdown of the Blues’ midfield that is the biggest difference between last season — or more accurately, the first half of last season — and this.
Mourinho’s men played their best football last season in a 4-2-3-1, with Mati and F bregas playing in the midfield double-pivot, and with Oscar at No 10. The Brazilian’s early-season form was outstanding, and his importance to the side was somewhat understated given he was arguably the main reason that F bregas was able to pull the strings from deeper in midfield with such great effectiveness.
Yet, on the evidence of several games last season and most games this, it seems as though conditions need to be extremely finely tuned for Chelsea FC to pull off an attacking 4-2-3-1 with the former Arsenal FC captain in the pivot.
Too many separate things have to be just right: the team has to be fully fit, energetic and press cohesively from the front and in midfield, Oscar has to be at his absolute best and cover the slow midfielders behind him, the opposition has to be sufficiently lacking in technical quality to play around the press, Mati has to be at his most discerning in terms of his positioning to intercept opposition passes, and Diego Costa has to be at his best to make runs in behind the defence to provide an attacking threat.
During the first half of last season, things were just right. Chelsea FC were in the ‘Goldilocks Zone’. This season, not so much. Beginning with players reporting back unfit and overweight (see Diego Costa and Eden Hazard), there has been a drop in individual performance levels that has fully exposed the shortcomings of Mourinho’s 4-2-3-1.
The more pertinent question, though, is whether the football of the first half of last season is actually sustainable. The imbalance within the Blues’ squad suggests otherwise.
Because of the porous midfield, a slow and ageing defence not suited to expansive football has been left exposed. Defenders like Kurt Zouma and Cesar Azpilicueta have their strengths, but picking out a pass under pressure is not one of them.
Cue launched balls forward, to players either too short or too physically dominated by opposition midfielders and defenders to get any sort of rhythm going. Diego Costa too has his strengths, but playing with his back to goal isn’t one of them. In a bid to receive the ball facing the goal, the Brazil-born Spain international has drifted to the wings constantly during games, much to the ire of the fans and his manager.
It seems as though there is a divide in the team: some players are suited to a more expansive style of play, while others are better suited to a more direct, physical and counter-attacking game.
How Mourinho can fix the mess
This dichotomy is fully manifest in Cesc F bregas more than any other player in the team. Although it is too easy to make a scapegoat of the Spaniard, his strengths and weaknesses highlight why Chelsea FC are stuck in limbo.
The 2-1 defeat to Leicester City illustrates this point very well. F bregas came on and had a decent game, creating chances for Diego Costa and making a difference to the Blues’ attack, which suddenly looked far more threatening. The Spaniard thrives in such a scenario — the tired Foxes sat back and allowed him time and space on the ball to pick out his passes.
However, his weakness was exposed brutally on one occasion in particular when N’golo Kant (who had run himself to the ground by that point) evaded him with ease to begin a counter-attack, and although F bregas was diligent in tracking back, he got sucked in by Marc Albrighton before the Englishman left him for dead, cut inside, and had a shot on goal that went just wide.
At the moment, Mourinho’s team is one that is incapable of playing expansive football without being summarily exposed in defence, but perhaps also lacks the personnel to play the sort of football the Portuguese played in his first spell at Stamford Bridge.
Chelsea FC’s malaise may be a combination of a multitude of factors, and perhaps there is no panacea for their woes, but arguably the most fundamental issue is the very identity of this side. Mourinho must ask himself this question: what is his team at its highest aspiration?
Is it a team playing the expansive, ‘beautiful’ football of last season? If so, it is unsustainable with the current squad, and needs the addition of a ball-playing centre-back, and perhaps more crucially, a defensive midfielder or a box-to-box midfielder who is both athletic and technically proficient. Ramires is that at his best, but is notoriously inconsistent.
Is it a team playing the equally breathtaking, swift counter-attacking football that was on display at the Etihad in February 2014 against Manchester City? If so, F bregas has no place in the side, and a more robust partner to Mati is still needed, with a shift to a 4-3-3.
The latter is closer to Mourinho’s strengths as a manager, and that was essentially the game plan against FC Porto in the Blues’ 2-0 win last Wednesday — their best performance of the season. The Portuguese has to make a decision sooner rather than later. Sticking to his roots may not produce the best football necessarily, but it has produced winning football more often than not.
And winning football is the kind the Blues’ faithful will watch all day long.