Twelve months ago, as we steadily and collectively came down from the high of Munich, there existed a level of anticipation for our pre-season tour of the US like I’ve never experienced before. The thought of beginning a new season with the Champions League trophy in our cabinet, having signed Eden Hazard as a direct result and with Fernando Torres ‘surely’ ready to step up and replace Didier Drogba, nobody could wait to see Chelsea take to the pitch again.
But now, fast-forward to the present date and you’ll notice a very different sought of anticipation followed the squad on the plane to South Asia Thursday night. There is no blissful floating down off of the veil from last season’s achievements or anything to build upon success-wise from last term. We’ve made a few promising young purchases but nothing close to an Eden Hazard-level coup. What we have instead, for the first time in a very long time, are reasons to reasonably expect big improvements in terms of quality on the pitch and for some serious steps to be in made in the regaining of our reputation as a side to be feared by all in Europe. Which if we’re honest, hasn’t been the reality for at least three years now.
And what are these reasons?
1 – To start with maybe the most obvious, the young talent invested in since the summer of 2011, have all improved, matured and adapted brilliantly (whether with the club or on loan) over the last two years and look set to contribute more than ever to Chelsea this time around. Hazard, Oscar and Azpilicueta all have full seasons with the club to build and improve upon, whilst Lukaku and De Bruyne both enjoyed hugely beneficial loan spells and look like twice the players the club sent away last August. As it stands, this season looks like it could be the one where the scouting and recruitment work done under Michael Emenalo could really begin to pay off.
2 – And as a result of this strategy, we have been able to ‘trim the fat’ from the squad and improve its overall level significantly. With both back-up keepers moved on, the retirement of Ferreira, as well as the release of Benayoun and Malouda (not to mention the potential sale of Demba Ba and Moses), space has been freed up for new and young players to become part of the first team, all of whom (unlike the men they’re replacing) have the ability to contribute to the side over an extended period of time. The inclusion of the players listed above in the first team all succeeded in making a squad that looked thin on paper even thinner in practice. It seems as though ‘thinness’ won’t be an issue next year. Or at least it shouldn’t be at any rate.
3 – Another key reason is the opportunity we have, and must surely take, to continue with the work Rafael Benitez did in alleviating our dependence upon senior members of the squad. The Spaniard made his share of errors but arguably, he did more than his three predecessors combined in phasing out certain senior players and placing the emphasis on the club’s youth. This long overdue transition has more momentum now than ever before. This will surely be the season it is completed and a new key core group of players is established.
4 – And of course the final reason is the small factor of having re-hired the greatest coach in the world. Just a small example of the kind of affect Mourinho can have was demonstrated in his first progress report on the official website this week, where he said “with deference to the others… Petr Cech is the best in the world”. In all honesty I hadn’t considered Cech to be the best in the world since his head injury – objectively, since then I’d always considered Buffon and Cassilas to be slightly better. But now all of a sudden, the notion seems a whole lot more than plausible once again. The way in which Mourinho can influence fan perception of his players with just a few simple words is extraordinary. And of course more importantly, his ability to make his players believe it is fairly renowned also. I always rated Benitez extremely highly but there are very few ways in which the level of coaching won’t improve at the club this year. In terms of the intensity and quality of the training sessions, the conditioning of the players mentally and physically as well as the tactical preparations for each game, Mourinho’s work is a step up from pretty much every other coach in the world. These qualities have encouraged club presidents in the past to hire him in spite of all his obvious character flaws. The enjoyment/happiness he feels in being back at the club has seen the almost complete suppression of these flaws however, meaning at least to begin with, Chelsea can take time to enjoy only the positive aspects of having Mourinho as head coach.
The tour begins with a week of training in Bangkok before a game against the Singha All-Stars on Wednesday. The other two matches on tour are against a Malaysia XI on the 21st and the Indonesia All-Stars on the 25th. We then fly to America to participate in pre-season tournament with the Milan clubs and Valencia with a potential final game against Mourinho’s old Real Madrid team.
The following players made the flight to Thailand last night:
Petr Cech, Mark Schwarzer, Jamal Blackman, Sam Walker
Branislav Ivanovic, John Terry, Gary Cahill, Tomas Kalas, Ashley Cole, Ryan Bertrand, Nathaniel Chalobah
Michael Essien, Frank Lampard, Josh McEachran, Marco van Ginkel, Ramires, Kevin De Bruyne,
Eden Hazard, Victor Moses, Andre Schurrle, Lucas Piazon
Demba Ba, Romelu Lukaku, Islam Feruz
In spite of all the excitement last year, Robbie di Matteo and his team had a shocking pre-season which saw losses to Milan, the MLS All-Stars and Brighton. Not that it mattered in the end as we won 7 of our first 8 league matches, but let’s hope Jose can get the squad ready and competing a bit faster this time around.
You’ll be able to read a full review of the pre-season tour here in a couple of weeks time…