The start to this season has been a complete and abject failure for José Mourinho and his team. He recognizes this, saying in his interview after Chelsea’s 2-1 loss to Palace – “The reality is we had a bad start, four points from four matches is a very bad start.” A telling quote from the king of deflecting blame from his team. It is clear however that the team does deserve blame. A lot of blame.
The defence has gone from being the outright league’s best to one of the most porous in the division in the space of a few games. To only compound this, the attack too has been blunt and weak.
Individual performances are just as bad. Eden Hazard; the reigning PFA Player of the Year, has struggled to find any of the magic that drove Chelsea towards an inevitable title last season. Cesc Fabregas has been awful defensively (unsurprisingly) and poor offensively (somewhat more surprisingly). Willian has lacked the spark which made him look completely at home in the company of widely regarded greats of the world game.
It is however the defensive members of the squad who have let José Mourinho down to the greatest extent. Nemanja Matic, John Terry, Gary Cahill and Branislav Ivanovic simply have not got started this campaign. Matic is not covering the back four like he once did, indeed he has been dominated by every opposing midfield whilst being offered minimal assistance from Fabregas. Terry, Cahill and Ivanvoic look completely burned out and in desperate need of a rest despite having just returned from a prolonged period away from the Premier League’s infamous intensity. Cesar Azpilicueta and Thibaut Courtois have been the lone shining stars in my eyes. Even Pedro; whose debut in the blue shirt of Chelsea was brilliant, has since been distinctly average.
However, more than any one individual or collection of individuals letting the team down, it is in fact the team has let the individuals down. Chelsea’s brilliance last term came mostly from the fact that the first eleven fitted so well together. Every player knew and performed their role brilliantly, without question or hesitation. Every player admittedly did still have their weaknesses and were exposed on occasion last season. But for the most part, the squad covered for each other, propelling Chelsea to the title under José Mourinho for the third time in his two tenures at the club.
This season however in stark contrast, the team has fallen apart. Partly due to a lack of fitness, in some ways experiencing a feeling of stagnation that came from a quiet summer, and largely through a series of unfortunate events, each player’s failings have come out. They are not being covered as before, making them all the more blatant.
Take Branislav Ivanovic for example. At this early stage of the 2015/16 campaign, he is arguably the weakest member of Cheslea’s back line and opposing teams have detected that. They target the flank on which the Serbian operates, either overloading it or isolating him. Ivanovic’s lack of pace is frighteningly obvious. Every winger he has faced thus far (Jefferson Montero, Raheem Sterling, James McClean, and the Palace trio of Wilfred Zaha, Yannick Bolasie and Bakary Sako) has left him appearing somewhat incompetent time and again. He has been poor in his positioning, sometimes drifting too far inside and leaving the wing exposed, and other times separating from the rest of the back-line and leaving gaps. These are not new problems though. They were evident last season in brief flashes, but only this time out have they been exposed fully. In my opinion, it is not entirely Ivanovic’s fault.
Matic did a much better job of covering the back line last season, especially Ivanovic. This in turn let Gary Cahill and John Terry stay inside when Ivanovic was out of position and as such, the defence remained tight. This time around however, the holding midfielder has not been able to cover for Ivanovic, or Cahill and Terry for that matter, worsened this season because of Fabregas. Teams slowly figured out last season that the former Barcelona play-maker is very weak defensively. It is very easy to draw him away from the back line, leaving space in front of Ivanovic and Cahill. Furthermore, Fabregas is not very disciplined, so when he does come out to engage the opposition, he is often unsuccessful in winning the ball. Opponents have focused on drawing out Fabregas, then attacking Ivanovic when he has no cover.
Therefore, Matic has had to cover so much more of the midfield, both in the start of this campaign and indeed towards the end of the last. It could be concluded that his drop in form is tied closely to this. Matic simply can’t be everywhere, and his attempts to be so hurt his performance. Thus, a problem with Ivanovic’s positioning can be traced to Matic which can be tracked further to Cesc Fabregas. The way that ] Mourinho has set up the team makes each piece reliant on the others. A fine principle when all is flowing well. However, when one fails, the rest are impacted in a less than positive manner. So in many ways, Chelsea’s poor form cannot and should not be pinned on anyone player. All; with little exception, have contributed to the lethargic play. This fact means that it is hard to fix the problem. If one or two players were letting the whole team down, then you could just replace them. Although I do not see this as the complete solution, fresh faces would surely go a long way to reigniting the Blues’ season.
In my view, what Chelsea need even more than this however is a systematic change. Instead of panicking and splurging vast sums of money on John Stones and Paul Pogba, the club should instead focus on improving what is already here. Some in-house changes might do some good, particularly as statements to the team. Baba Rahman could replace Ivanovic; either permanently or temporarily, with Azpilicueta filling in at right-back. This would certainly be a timely reminder to the Serbian that he needs to step up his game to play a part in a Mourinho side. A match on the sidelines might do Matic and Fabregas some good too. It would let them know that no one is above being replaced, and give Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Bertrand Traore a chance to show their undoubted natural talent. Maybe now is finally the prime time for Mourinho to place some faith in the youth, something that he has been particularly averse to in both his spells at Stamford Bridge.
Although the Portuguese manager sees it as a disadvantage, the pause in Premier League action provided by the international break gives Chelsea a chance to recover. Mourinho can review what has gone wrong in the system and what he needs to change, before putting a plan into action when his stars return to Cobham. Players can think about how to improve their individual performances, mulling over past mistakes in the hotel rooms of their national sides. Quite simply, there needs to be a spark. Chelsea are playing lifeless football right now. Mourinho needs to make some changes to the tactics or fire some players up if the Blues are going to get back on track in their quest to retain the Premier League title.
Featured Image: All rights reserved by Arturo Miguel[separator type=”thin”]
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