And we are back with the second part of How Deep is Your Squad with the spotlight now firmly focussed on to Chelsea, last year’s best team by a country mile. As people criticised City for their distinct lack of fight in defending their title, Chelsea up until Christmas were truly sumptuous. As lavish and smooth as the velvet robe hung up on the back of the bedroom in the house you always dreamt of. Fabregas, the returning maestro, made old man Gepetto from Pinocchio look like the Punch and Judy show at the end of Margate pier as he pulled the strings of the Chelsea midfield with consummate ease. Drogba came back and Diego Costa came in, the master and the apprentice as Mourinho plotted his next title triumph. Between August and Christmas Chelsea played some fantastic football but signs of a demise were there, cracks were covered over with just how well they played during the first half of the season and the failings of Utd, City, Arsenal and Liverpool throughout the season too offer any great sense of competition.
Deadline Day 2015. The start of September, with 4 league games played as well as the Community Shield and the footballing world is in the dark midst of an international break. Managers might sit down after telling the 4 remaining players they have left to go home for a little bit and will assess how their team’s start of their season has gone. Mourinho could well sit at his desk, and his lovely new £120 chrome desk fan is ruined. Shit has ruined it. This metaphorical turd has hit the fan and ruined his tactical white board in the corner of this made up office with the defensive back five taking the brunt of the impact. That is just about how awfully it must of looked for José the Happy One, and yet we find ourselves 3 weeks later thinking that the shaky pre-season and the Community Shield defeat to Arsenal were just the tip of the iceberg that brought down the Titanic. Chelsea are in disarray but what can José do?
Firstly; a big question must be asked about Chelsea’s summer recruitment policy. In the summer of 2014 Chelsea did some marvellous business. As their shopping list came in like a short, sharp basket only dash to Harrods. In came Fabregas, Diego Costa and Filipe Luis. Rémy came in to support Costa and the re-turning messiah that was King Didier. Courtois started and consequently cemented his place as no.1 after completing his education at Atletico. Chelsea spent £85 million on talent that would both walk into the squad or immediately supplement the starting XI from the bench. 2015 brought a very different approach. In came a selection of emerging talents from Brazil to Romania. Asmir Begovic came in to replace Cech. Baba Rahman came in to replace Luis. The only real scope for improvement came in the form of Pedro as the ineffective winter buy Cuadrado was moved on to Juventus. Chelsea however didn’t bring in one player who could immediately challenge for a starting berth, who would pose a threat to the likes of Fabregas, Costa or Ivanovic.
Coupling this sense of security with perhaps a sense of complacency and a lack of desire and Chelsea needed someone to come in and ruffle some feathers in a constructive and harmless way. I for one don’t like to suggest that when the Chelsea players enter the field they lack desire, yet City fell victims the season before. Arrogance can set in and at times it is neigh on impossible to stop the rot if the players who won the title the previous year have to merely train to be guaranteed a starting role. Chelsea needed to be proactive and bring in competition but instead bought in Papy Djilbodji for £3 million. Hardly threatening to Terry and Cahill’s starting berth. Hardly inspiring for the Matthew Harding.
This security in position as also made Chelsea tactically predictable, teams know what to expect from this incarnation of José’s Chelsea. So far this season clearly some of the old guard are struggling. John Terry so imperious last season could have potentially hit that performance cliff of a player nearing the end of his career will do. Rio Ferdinand had it in his last season for United, where the pace goes and the exceptional is just out of reach in terms of positional play or the timing of a tackle. Branislav Ivanovic, after season upon season of faithful doting service marauding up and down the right hand side for Chelsea is coming undone by just about anyone he faces. Players this season have attacked him, have fancied beating him for pace and strength. The great mystery of the decline of Fabregas post-Christmas continues to haunt the midfield in structure and fluency. The predictability of Chelsea stems from the basis that you know who José will pick because he has got no one else to come in.
If Terry is playing bad, you bring in Zouma. If Cahill then plays bad, you have to bring back Terry. There is no central defensive depth, especially when you consider the talent Chelsea have sent out on loan in the form of Nathan Aké, Kenneth Omeruo and in particular Tomas Kalas (whose performances against Liverpool potentially last season really should have been enough to convince José that he was ready to be bloodied into the first team set up). Whilst in particular the issue of centre back was attempted to be resolved by the purchase of John Stones, Tony Pulis made the fantastic point that teams don’t have to sell their best players anymore with the new TV deal. Clubs like Everton and West Brom have seen their respective budgets blossoming quite nicely and have already seen an increase beyond any transfer fee that could be paid.
The same can be said for both the right back position and the centre of midfield. Chelsea’s aggressive loan policy and farming of footballers to comply with Financial Fair Play might be their business model, but at the cost of true depth and a flourishing academy to First team progression. The current squad is thin on options as seen at right back. The obvious tactical switch would be to move the still fantastic Azpilicueta across to his favoured and natural right back position. César has been stand out in my opinion, a true Mourinho player in his tenacity and workhorse life ethic to managing that left flank. Undoubtedly the freedom that Hazard now has is through the knowledge that Azpilicueta can be trusted. Through swapping César from left to right however does create two new issues; an effect on the performance of Hazard and also the introduction of Baba Rahman into a team with so little confidence. Such a move would really show that José really has no untouchable players but is a hell of a gamble if Rahman struggles to settle and doesn’t link with Hazard well enough, hampering the performance of Chelsea’s undoubtedly world class player. Chelsea are thus left hamstrung by their own business model and failure to realise the loyal Branislav would not go on forever.
The same again is said for centre midfield position and as previously stated the striking options at the club. Without Fabregas, Chelsea have no deep lying creative players. Without Matic, Chelsea doesn’t have that strong authoritarian force in the centre of the park. The two natural choices would be Ramires and John Obi Mikel and whilst Ramires showed his worth against Newcastle United last weekend with a commanding and game changing performance from the bench, John Obi Mikel I have always felt is nothing better than truly pedestrian on the ball. Perhaps a shining light might be offered in the form of Ruben Loftus-Cheek. I for one haven’t seen enough of the kid play but by all accounts he is good. Very good. Good enough for Mourinho to state that if he isn’t a full England international in three years’ time, he has failed Loftus-Cheek. With the benefit of hindsight (a truly glorious thing in football), you would of brought the youngster in for the last 3 or 4 games of last season, to play 90 minutes in a Championship winning team, rather than expecting him to turn around the ailing fortunes of Mourinho’s worst ever start to a season at Chelsea and the worse ever under Abramovich. If pressure makes diamonds then by golly could England have a star in the making if that is the chosen answer to the midfield woes at the Bridge. The same issue can be seen up front – without Diego Costa, Chelsea are thin on the ground in terms of players José can trust and you have to wonder how many goals Patrick Bamford has to score on loan before being taken seriously. New contract aside, surely Bamford deserved the nod over Falcao whose record before the move to Monaco and the subsequent knee is just silly but his time at Manchester United really should have served as a warning that here lies a player who is no longer the same.
Chelsea’s title defence is unravelling. No team has come from this far back to come higher than third in the Premier League and whilst I for one still think that they have the potential to come second as others flounder, Chelsea’s squad is being exposed due to a drop off in performance from its most consistent names of the previous season. There are vultures never circling too far away from José and as theories get banded around from pundit to journalist to fan about the third season Mourinho curse, SW6 really could become a pressure cooker waiting to go off.