Chelsea are surely on the brink of wrapping up the league title now. I think I can say that with a certain degree of assuredness, as they sit six points adrift of Manchester City going into April and with a game in hand to boot. They have a slightly superior goal difference, minimal injury concerns and plenty of players in rich enough form to see them across the line. It has by no means been the perfect season – crashing out of the Champions League and FA Cup early will be seen by many as obvious failures – but league success is what counts more than any, Jose Mourinho will no doubt insist.
What have Chelsea had though that their rivals lack this season? Their scoring record is about the same as Manchester City’s and Arsenal’s behind them, while their goals against column is only marginally less than any of the top five. Even the Blues’ record against the rest of this season’s top seven teams has been relatively unimpressive, despite being regarded as a critical component of league winning formulas in the past. They have only collected 14 points from 27 available thus far, worse than City’s (15/27), United’s (17/27) and Liverpool’s (16/30) records thus far. Statistically that could point to them having a nervy run in with three such fixtures remaining, but with a potential nine point advantage going into these games it would still take a momentous collapse for Chelsea to relinquish their grip now.
Though not starkly apparent however, Mourinho’s team’s performances suggests they warrant their impending glory. For what they have that their chasing rivals lack is a precise degree of balance to their squad and usual line-up, which prevents opposition, especially the lesser sides in the league, from taking anything from them. The ‘big’ matches become less important if so-called routine results are near impeccable, and Chelsea have shown that this season, justifying their uninspired top seven form by taking 53 points from 60 against the remaining thirteen sides – just shy of a formidable 90% efficiency rate. Compare that to Manchester City’s 46/63 (73%) record and the difference is clear: taking as many points from lesser teams takes away the pressure from high profile fixtures.
Results would suggest that Chelsea’s form this season has marked an architectural shift in emphasis. Last season it was the opposite end of the scales on which the Blues found themselves, as they took 27/36 against top seven sides, but only managed about 70% of points from the rest of the league. Though they fared better than Manchester City and Liverpool in ‘big’ matches – doing the double over both even – these sides managed to scrape ahead of Chelsea by hitting close to 80% efficiency against lesser sides. Over a campaign of such tight margins, it was the six or seven more points gained against beatable teams that decided the final league standings, not the two or three extra points won against their surrounding rivals.
This time around, Mourinho has constructed a squad tailor-made for avoiding slip ups against teams the bookies would have them odds-on to comfortably take care of. Unlike most of their Premier League rivals, Chelsea have a balance to their line-up which is designed to avoid defeat. While better quality sides are capable of upping the ante to match this Chelsea side in a one-off showdown, most inferior teams are incapable of breaking down this unit without the help of a very bad off-day – something Mourinho’s teams through the years have typically very rarely shown.
Urging Roman Abramovich to splash out €25 million to bring Nemanja Matic back to Stamford Bridge, was one of the best decisions Mourinho has made in his second spell as Chelsea manager. He is the exact kind of player the Portuguese likes to build his team around – solid, efficient and, let’s be honest, hardly an exciting prospect going forward. Costinha, Makelele, Zanetti and Khedira have all satisfied similar roles under ‘the Special One’ in the past, and Mourinho’s knack of picking out the ideal ‘boring’ player is uncanny. Matic is the perfect player to hold anchor while the rest of the midfield and attackers pile forward, and he is a player of the style, consistency and quality that Chelsea have missed for the last few years. It is hardly coincidence, surely, that the Serb’s absence coincided with Chelsea’s defeat to Newcastle in December, and then their late collapse against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League; he provides the cover that gives Fabregas et al. creative freedom, and the team’s success this season has become nearly completely reliant on this balance.
Against lesser sides this balance is vital as they often lack the quality or wherewithal to counteract it. Of course, there is a lot more to it tactically than simply playing Matic in a deep role and letting the rest of the midfield bomb forward – if that was the case then every team would attempt something similar and football would be dull and predictable – but he at least suits Mourinho’s general strategic approach and lives up to his high disciplinary standards. It is this latter point that has been one of Manchester City’s big failings this season, as Fernando and Fernandinho have often been found lacking defensively; allowing Javi Garcia’s conservative but quiet effectiveness to leave for Zenit last summer has perhaps not proved as inconsequential as it appeared at the time.
None of this is to say that Chelsea’s team is perfect, as their absence in Europe’s latter stages details. John Obi Mikel is hardly even close to a high enough standard of replacement when Matic is missing, and there is still some way to go towards moulding that typically feared Mourinho-esque defence he built success on in the past. However, what is clear for now at least, is that Chelsea are ahead of their major domestic competitors. Manchester City’s need for squad rebuilding has been talked about on this website already in some detail, while Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United still need major investment and character-building to mount a serious title challenge next season.
For now, Jose Mourinho has struck the perfect on-field balance between ‘boring’ and ‘flair’ at Chelsea, and none of his Premier League rivals have been able to do the same. And it is for this reason that the Blues will likely lift their fourth Premier League trophy come the end of May.