The season has started slowly for Chelsea. A disappointing loss to Arsenal in the Community Shield was followed by a perplexing 2-2 draw at home against Swansea, followed by an embarrassing 3-0 loss at City.
Worse than the results is the process. While Jose Mourinho might have been able to take some solace in the fact that his team had played well, and been unlucky to lose, there is no such refuge.
Chelsea has been profoundly underwhelming. The defense is porous. The offense is blunt. Nemanja Matic is not the monster that swallowed up midfields last season. Cesc Fabregas isn’t pulling strings. Eden Hazard and Branislav Ivanovic seem burned out. Diego Costa looks desperate to get some better service, but even then one wonders if he would score.
Change is needed. Something has failed. Whether that is the system, the players, or, more likely, some combination, Chelsea needs to make some changes. Not an overhaul. No house cleaning. Just some tweaks.
It is clear that Jose Mourinho and the board at Chelsea recognize that. They watched the weak performances. They saw the need for fresh air. And they’ve moved on it.
Pedro’s shocking transfer is one indicator of that. Baba Rahman’s is the second. Both give Mourinho the flexibility he needs to shake things up.
Rahman is a very different fullback than Branislav Ivanovic, Chelsea’s normal right back. Ivanovic is a converted center back, playing out of position on the right. While he was brilliant last season, teams have quickly figured out how to beat him. Jefferson Montero and Raheem Sterling both used their tremendous pace to blow past him.
Ivanovic is too slow to deal with true wingers. He is also very offensive. That’s not always bad, but when Willian or whoever is on the right fails to track back and help Ivanovic cover, it leaves Chelsea exposed.
Rahman, on the other hand, is just as speedy as his counterparts. He is great going forward as well, showing a good ability to hit strikers with crosses.
It is not certain that Rahman will push Ivanovic out of the lineup immediately. Ivanovic has had a few bad matches, but he is still one of the best right backs in the league, as well as the vice-captain, and his removal could create discord in the locker room.*
*Rahman for Ivanovic isn’t a straight swap. Rahman would take over at left back, while Cesar Azpilicueta, a natural right back, would move across to Ivanovic’s spot.
But, if Mourinho thought the decision necessary, Rahman would not be a bad replacement; in fact, he might be an upgrade.
Rahman’s pace and defensive skills mean that Jose wouldn’t have to worry about leaving him isolated. Ivanovic requires covering midfielders, who can help in with the pace of players like Montero and Sterling.
But Rahman can handle them, allowing Mourinho to drop Willian or Ramires and start a more offensive winger. Like Pedro.
The former Barca man has a great eye for goal (73 goals in 259 appearances for the Catalans), as well as setting others up (41 assists as well). He is a direct winger, fantastic at picking out targets in the box. He makes incisive and cutting runs behind defenses, and scores most of his goals from those situations.
His work ethic is impressive as well. Pedro often made those runs to no end, and was always outside of the spotlight at Barcelona. Yet he still managed to fend off Thierry Henry, David Villa, Alexis Sanchez, and numerous other challengers to retain his spot in the starting lineup.
Pedro’s pace, as well as his dribbling and passing, make him an easy choice to slot into Chelsea’s lineup. He will probably take Willian’s place on the right, although he could slot into any of the front three midfield positions.
Along with Baba Rahman, Pedro will reshape how Chelsea plays. The Blues will look more like the XI Jose built in his first spell at the club.
Trade Didier Drogba out for Diego Costa (both struggled with injuries in their early years at the club, just as a fun sidenote). Trade Arjen Robben and Joe Cole for Eden Hazard and Pedro.
Nemanja Matic will boss the middle of the park like Claude Makelele. The backline will be as solid as it was then, and Thibaut Courtois is a worthy comparison to Petr Cech.
For much of last season, it seemed the Mourinho was holding his team back. He didn’t want the Blues to play the fluid, possession based football they had so beautifully pulled off earlier. There were too many defensive issues, even though the backline was strong.
Chelsea was too often caught out in midfield, and teams could open them up on the break. The Blues went almost the first half of the year without losing, but Mourinho wasn’t comfortable with the shootout style of games they played.
With Rahman slotting in at left back, and Azpilicueta shifting over to right back, Mourinho can relax. He can let Fabregas, Hazard and Pedro off the leash. With a backline that doesn’t need as much cover, and without Ivanovic leaving gaps in the defense by acting like a forward, the midfield and Costa can break loose.
Pedro’s directness will allow Costa to stay central more often. He will ping crosses into Costa, allowing the striker to prey on defenders more.
Hazard will also be freed up by Pedro. The Spaniard’s runs will distract defenders from their focus on Hazard, and give the Belgian a target for his passes. Fabregas too will have a player running in behind defenses to knock the ball too.
Pedro’s inclusion might also allow Ivanovic to stay in the squad. Although the Serbian would still leave the back line open at times, it would make attacks sharper. Ivanovic often darts forward down the right, picking the ball up outside the box.
Willian, Ramires, Juan Cuadrado and Victor Moses often fail to make secondary runs behind and past him, giving him no options to pass too. This leaves Ivanovic with two options: shoot or cross, neither very successful.
But Pedro is the player Ivanovic is looking for. They could play 1-2’s off each other, and Ivanovic would finally have a player to set up for runs into the box.
I personally believe that Rahman should be given a chance. Ivanovic is a great player, but he is out of position at right back. Making him a backup center back would be a better option, both for himself and the team.
However, Jose seems to trust in Ivanovic, and if he can make it work, awesome. Ivanovic can be frustrating, but at the same time, he is a big player for the team. The goals he scored last year were crucial to Chelsea’s success. I also believe in loyalty, and giving the veteran a chance to vindicate himself. Maybe Branislav is just having a few bad games, and he will be backing in world beating form soon.
The moves of this past week aren’t the end all solution to Chelsea’s problems. But they are a statement. A statement that Chelsea is ready to become one of the best teams in Europe.
Featured image: All rights reserved by Francisco Javier Fernández[separator type=”thin”]
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