So it’s official I guess, Chelsea aren’t just going through a rough patch, they seem to have much bigger problems and are well and truly suffering – somebody call a doctor! – oh wait, that’s right.
The champions lost just four games in all competitions last season, while they’ve lost six already this season. It would be an understatement to say that things aren’t quite right at Stamford Bridge at the moment. Chelsea have the same group of players who strolled to the league title last year, they have the same manager, they’re playing the same system, so what on Earth is the problem?
Last season, Chelsea’s defenders took the plaudits. After January, José Mourinho decided that shutting up shop was the way to win the title, despite his side setting the league alight with flair and excitement in the months prior. But after a 5-3 loss to Spurs, defending became the name of the game. Being near-impossible to break down was what ‘boring, boring Chelsea’ began to pride themselves on, and despite losing some popularity along the way, they strolled to the title. This season, they look an utterly different side, shipping two goals or more on a regular basis, looking disorganised and compromised defensively and looking generally short of the confidence you’d expect from a group of players who only won the league a few months ago.
Chelsea’s current poor run of form has been put down to a whole variety of issues ranging from the Eva Carniero (and Jon Fearn!!) debacle, to behind the scenes bust ups, but I’d like to throw my hat into the ring and try and isolate the problem as to why Chelsea are suffering so much.
Chelsea’s walk to the title was just that, a walk. Through a mixture of only having to be one goal better than their opponents and their nearest title rivals Manchester City dropping sloppy points in winnable games, Chelsea clinched their 4th Premier League title without many hiccoughs at all. In the end, it was easy, but it was unconvincing. No one doubted that Chelsea were deserving champions, particularly given how they flew out of the blocks early on, but they hardly set the world alight during the title run-in. They were efficient and opportunistic in the latter half of the season, as opposed to August-December 2014 when they were ruthless, stylish and aggressive. Domestic champions should feel like kings, they should feel unbeatable, unstoppable, like there’s nothing that their team can’t go on and achieve. My view is, the Chelsea players didn’t feel like that. It may have been a shrewd way of plugging defensive holes and preventing silly slip-ups, but Chelsea’s pragmatic approach may have cost the players some of their self-belief in the long haul.
Looking back to the title run-in last year, Chelsea faced Man City (h), Man Utd (h) and Arsenal (a). They drew, won and drew those games respectively, the latter two, more-or-less securing the championship. They got the results they wanted, but at what psychological cost? Chelsea played like underdogs in all three matches, recording their lowest ever possession percentage since records began against United. They should’ve been out there to prove why they were going to storm to the title and prove to everyone their dominance, instead they took very few risks and only did what was necessary, not what they were potentially capable of (after all they only lost 2 league games on their road to the title).
Make no mistake though, there’s a lot to be said for taking realistic approaches to specific matches, instead of just blindly trying to outplay each and every one of your opponents regardless of situation or context, and you could argue that Chelsea were clever, they knew they only needed to avoid losses in all three matches to stay in the driving seat.
This though, is short term thinking, something – many will argue – Mourinho will always succumb to. They got the results they wanted, they won the league, but did Mourinho’s pragmatism prevent his players from truly believing that they were the best in the league?
Based on the way they set up against City, United, Arsenal and PSG in the Champions League, it would seem the manager didn’t believe his team had the quality to outplay any of those sides (or at least was unwilling to take the risk). Such caution would make sense against Barcelona or Real Madrid, but against sides you’re expected to beat, such prudence is likely to have had a negative effect on his players.
I wrote back in 2014 that I believed Mourinho describing his side as a ‘little horse’ during the 2013/14 season led to a similar situation, a lack of self belief within his players – and subsequently failing to win a title they really ought to have won. The same arguably applies here. They started the season on fire, but ended it having let that fire ease out into just a few flickering embers. As a result, they’re now desperately fanning the flames wondering why they won’t ignite like before.
Gone are the days of Petr Cech, Ashley Cole, Ricardo Carvalho, Michael Ballack, Claude Makelele, Frank Lampard, Michael Essien and Didier Drogba, where Chelsea had a dressing room full of not just big, dominant characters, but multiple international captains too, real leaders. Aside from John Terry, Chelsea’s squad is filled with young, impressionable, often inexperienced players, who probably will be somewhat shaken up by the sense that their manager doesn’t really believe in their ability. It’s possible that the atmosphere following the title win was a little flat. Sure, they had won the league, but perhaps they didn’t really feel like champions, like true winners. After all, the title was more or less tied up by March, so the end to the season was something of an anti-climax for the Blues. Add to this the deflation of a poor Champions League exit to PSG and you can imagine the dressing room feeling a little flat over the summer.
Something which can lift spirits and is probably vital for circumstances such as this, is a few new signings. A couple of big names added to the squad to regain that sense of excitement and freshen things up. Trivial as it may initially seem, the potential importance of this shouldn’t be understated. Feeling as though you’ve improved and are better suited than you were before for the times ahead can be crucial for confidence and team morale. Chelsea had just ended the season sluggishly and didn’t have a Pogba or a Varane or a Bale to get excited about. Exactly who you bring in for this reason doesn’t necessarily matter, what makes the difference is that they are big enough to stir up some enthusiasm, to give the dressing room a lift – and to intensify competition for places too.
Chelsea, like Man City the year before failed to do this. It cost City then and it’s costing Chelsea now. Blues fans might be casting their minds back to the 2010/11 season where their side experienced a similarly poor run of form. Ancelotti had just won the double. Over the summer they only brought in one player – Ramires. They started brightly but ran out of steam in October and suddenly found themselves hopelessly off the pace, finding 3 points tediously difficult to come by and generally playing without organisation or spirit. This miserable run lasted until February. What sorted them out? The January transfer window. Big signings.
In came Torres and Luiz for a combined £71 million. Now, the players themselves did very little to sort out Chelsea’s woes, but arguably it was that lift and that buzz that came with those additions that re-energised the squad. The season as whole was an unsuccessful one for Ancelotti’s men but it could’ve been a lot worse without that fresh new buzz that came with the January signings (Chelsea were 5th when they bought Torres and Luiz, and ended up finishing 2nd).
Whether you agree with that or not, there’s much to be said for big signings bringing with them a lift to any dressing room and Chelsea missed that opportunity. By the time Pedro was brought in the damage had been done, the tone was set, they had been thrashed by City and questions were already being asked about their capabilities to defend their crown. They saw bids rejected for Stones and Pogba in the latter stages of the window and so August finished with a sense of failure in the minds of everyone associated with the club. The atmosphere, presumably very flat.
The Eva Carneiro situation was badly timed and didn’t help things, nor did the 3-0 loss to City so early on, which in reality didn’t deserve such a heavy scoreline. But such subtleties are easily forgotten in place of the bigger picture: CRISIS.
All of this, coupled with the extra pressure of being champions has led to a lack of self belief. And as a result, form suffers, legs and minds suffer, communication, togetherness, organisation, discipline all suffer.
Mourinho’s sides are typically self confident and traditionally very organised and disciplined. But the most staggering thing about Chelsea this season is how disorganised and how lacking in structure their team (and midfield in particular) seems to be. Mourinho’s teams have always prided themselves on almost military-esque defensive organisation, yet there’s been a total absence of it this season.
Compared with last season, where The Blues prided themselves on solidity, structurally they’re all over the place and the goals are flying in as a result. Self belief may not have been the only thing affected, belief in their system may be suffering as well.
Having made this attempt to decipher why Chelsea’s season has started so badly, I’ve also written a piece on what I believe they must do to fix it, which will be published in the coming days,
so check back then. The second part of Harry Brent’s article can be read here.