Chelsea FC have made their worst start to a Premier League season in 17 years – failing to win either of their opening two games – and a humiliating defeat to Manchester City has brought to the fore long-existing problems
It would be a stretch to say that many foresaw the woeful start Chelsea FC have made to their title defence. However, in retrospect, the games against Swansea City at Stamford Bridge and title rivals Manchester City at the Etihad have only served to highlight chinks in the Blues’ armour that have been present for a while now.
Cast your mind back, for instance, to the 5-3 defeat Jos Mourinho’s men suffered at the hands of Tottenham Hotspur on the 1st of January this year. Quickly written off at the time as an anomaly in what was undoubtedly a fantastic season for Chelsea FC, the start the Blues have made to this season suggests that it was perhaps more than just that.
It does not take a particularly advanced footballing brain to pick out the basic similarities between that fateful day and the 3-0 drubbing at the Etihad on Sunday – Branislav Ivanovi endured a torrid time at right-back, and the centre-back pairing of Gary Cahill and John Terry were routinely exposed, having to face quick, technically adept players running at them and in behind.
Even though an accumulation of fixtures during the festive period might have exacerbated the Blues’ listless defensive performance that night, the manner of the defeat was perhaps indicative of a larger malaise. In fact, there have been enough similar performances over the past two seasons – including Swansea City and Newcastle United at Stamford Bridge last season, West Ham at Upton Park, Liverpool FC in the semi-final tie of the Capital One Cup, and the opening two games of this season – to suggest there is a pattern, and that Chelsea FC manager Jos Mourinho has to take measures to ensure that it does not continue.
A shake-up in defence – perhaps through new signings
The one thing people have come to expect from a Jos Mourinho team is a miserly defence. Although it is perhaps too early to write off the current Chelsea FC back-four, the fissures in the bedrock of Mourinho’s footballing philosophy – which has defensive solidity at its very core – should be of concern to fans and manager alike.
Whether due to a shortened pre-season and a consequent lack of match sharpness, or a manifestation of the pernicious effects of ageing, it is clear that the opening two games of the Blues’s season have highlighted the need for a different style of defender in Mourinho’s back-four.
Although Gary Cahill and John Terry are quality defenders (the latter arguably amongst the best in the league), it is evident that there is very little pace between the two. The Englishmen are also what one would term ‘passive’ defenders – defenders who primarily rely on their reading of the game, their anticipation and defensive positioning, as well as physicality when required to deal with opposition threats.
Whilst this is not necessarily a negative, one has to wonder whether the Blues would be better off with faster, more active and aggressive defenders that could better suit the expansive style of football Mourinho has sought to implement since the beginning of last season. Cahill and Terry are average defenders when isolated against fast, tricky players and that presents a problem going forward for the Blues.
Mourinho’s men have played their best football when pressing the opposition with intensity in advanced areas of the field, necessitating the back line to move higher up to maintain a compact team structure by minimising the space between themselves and the midfield. So whilst the Portuguese does not employ a Pep Guardiola or Andres Villas-Boas style high defensive line per se, the Chelsea FC defence is left vulnerable during scenarios in games when this does happen.
Both Swansea City and Manchester City had strikers making runs off the shoulder of the last defender and finding space in behind the Blues’ defence, and both achieved this with alarming ease. Mourinho’s substitution of captain John Terry at half-time was a major talking point, but the tactical change did have its desired effect – the aggressive, quick Kurt Zouma seemed to improve the Blues’ defence, even though more goals were scored in the second period.
John Stones, heavily linked with a summer switch to Stamford Bridge, is another defender who plays on the front foot, and one who would arguably be better suited to – and less exposed by – an expansive style of football. The transition does not have to be made with immediate effect, but it must be made – from the Cahill-Terry tandem towards defenders of the athleticism of Kurt Zouma and John Stones.
A centre-midfield partner for Nemanja Mati , mainly for the ‘big games’
Failure to control the midfield is again an issue that will probably not come as a shock to Mourinho. Against Manchester City, even with the presence of the tenacious Ramires, the Blues failed to have any semblance of control of the midfield in the first half, which in turn exposed the defence.
Chelsea FC are, in a sense, still somewhat in limbo. There is still a feeling watching the team – particularly in the games against stronger opposition – that a balance between defensive solidity and attacking fluidity has not yet been struck. The player who perhaps most embodies this is Spanish international Cesc F bregas.
The former Arsenal FC midfielder has, on the whole, struggled to control the midfield from deeper areas against the bigger teams. It might be a harsh assessment, but there is a growing feeling that F bregas is something of a liability to Mourinho in these ‘big’ games, given his failure to influence the attack enough and his inability to act as a physical presence in midfield in a defensive sense.
Consequently, the Blues’ midfield is that much easier to bypass, causing huge problems in defence. The most egregious example of this is, once again, the 5-3 defeat at White Hart Lane earlier this year. An out of sorts Nemanja Mati made things worse on that occasion, but even at his best, the Serbian cannot reasonably be expected to single-handedly resist top opposition midfields – like that of Manchester City or Paris Saint-Germain.
A strong midfield presence such as Belgian Axel Witsel – who would also be a significant upgrade on the likes of Ramires and John Obi Mikel – to partner Mati would be ideal for Mourinho to use during these bigger games, allowing for more freedom of movement for the Serb, as well as more attacking freedom for F bregas.
Brazilian Oscar is a unique no.10 and his defensive work-rate has a big role to play in Mourinho’s willingness to use the Spaniard in the double-pivot, but with Oscar often sitting out against the better opposition when the Blues look to play on the break, the Chelsea FC manager is forced to use the likes of Ramires, Mikel or even Zouma for that third body in central midfield.
This imbalance in midfield unsurprisingly has repercussions for the defence. The less solid the Blues’ midfield is, the more chance there is of opposition attackers being able to manufacture situations where they get a chance to run at the likes of Cahill and Terry. Ineffective pressing in midfield can also give the opposition midfielders time and space to pick out passes for strikers making runs in behind the defence – Swansea’s Jonjo Shelvey and Baf timbi Gomis highlighting that very point.
With around a fortnight left in the transfer market, it seems unlikely that Mourinho and Chelsea FC will make a major signing in central midfield. However, if they do, it is likely to be a strong, athletic box-to-box midfielder of the ilk of Witsel who can make a genuine difference in games against top opposition.
Make the attack more potent and less predictable
Chelsea FC were reliant on the creativity of Eden Hazard for a large chunk of last season, and it seems as though that will be the case once again this. The predictability of the Blues’ attack could be seriously damaging to their chances of retaining the English Premier League crown.
Unlike the likes of Louis van Gaal or Pep Guardiola whose teams are known for their structured attacking, Jos Mourinho is by and large dependent on moments of magic his attacking players can produce to score goals. Paradoxically, his unstructured attack is becoming increasingly predictable, with certain patterns of play repeating over the past year.
Right-back Branislav Ivanovi has not managed to have the same kind of impact out wide on the right in an attacking sense, whilst at the same time exposing himself defensively and allowing the opposition to exploit the pocket of space behind him, which right centre-back Gary Cahill then has to patrol.
One way the Blues’ attack could be less predictable would be the use of an attacking full-back on the left like Abdul Baba Rahman, Mourinho’s latest signing from FC Augsburg. Although C sar Azpilicueta is unmatched in a defensive sense, the Spaniard offers little going forward for the Blues, and that could well be by design.
An attacking full-back on the left could theoretically make that flank more exposed given Hazard’s relative inability to contribute defensively. It would also have ramifications further down the field, because a pocket of space behind an attacking full-back on the left could prove even more fatal – an exposed John Terry would be dragged out of position to deal with any threats in that area.
Adding an extra facet to the Chelsea FC attack, however, is perhaps worth that risk. Juxtaposed against Kolarov’s outstanding performance where the Serbian peppered the Blues’ six-yard box with high-quality crosses – one of which very nearly resulted in a goal – the Blues’ reluctance to attack using their left-back seemed even more conspicuous.
Another way for Mourinho to bring something new to the attack could be quite simply by freshening it up with new faces: giving opportunities even if off the bench to the likes of Bertrand Traor , Victor Moses and Kenedy (when he officially signs for the club), if not signing a new attacking player.
There is no escaping the fact that Chelsea’s start to the season has been less than satisfactory. However, Mourinho has enough experience in top-level management to turn things around and get his team’s season back on track. With nearly two weeks of the transfer window still to go, more fresh faces are likely at Stamford Bridge, and that will no doubt reinvigorate the squad too.
Either way, a tough season lies in store for the Blues – one that could signal the end of yet another legendary Chelsea FC career.