Despite it being pointlessly early to start forming any sort of serious judgements on Mourinho’s work so far this season, or on the prospects of his side, some early impressions and concerns have nonetheless began to arise. The following is an improvisational thrashing out of all the ideas I’ve had, seen and read on the football we’ve played so far…
Firstly, it worth noting after the good work Rafael Benitez did last season improving our defence and overall shape, there were no real technical issues for Mourinho to sort out upon arrival; he inherited a side playing some good, all-round football. The one thing Rafa failed to do however was to give the team any sort of tactical identity, or inspire a distinctive style – understandable in fairness, given the ephemeral nature of his tenure. It is a problem however that we fully expected, and still expect Mourinho to solve and it’s disappointing just how little progress has been made in that sense so far.
It’s obviously foolish to expect any new ideas to have fully manifested themselves so quickly, but for some reason, a fixed system/first XI currently feels a long way off. And though this isn’t necessarily a problem, in and of itself, if we make the surely safe assumption that it’s Jose’s intention to build a side with recognisable and consistent characteristics, if it continues not to happen then some difficult questions will have to be asked. Are Mourinho’s fundamental ideals incompatible with key core groups of players? Or are the forced accommodations of fan-favoured players limiting the side overall? What should be accepted and agreed upon now amongst Chelsea fans is that we don’t want to see a repeat of what happened with Jose at Real Madrid, where the compromises made between his defensive tactics and Real’s attacking culture resulted in the formation of a side without either the defensive structure or attacking fluidity to fulfil their obvious potential.
Let’s take a brief look at how Mourinho has used each part of the squad so far, starting with the defence.
Probably the two players to have benefitted most from the Portuguese’ return are Ashley Cole and John Terry. Having both lost a yard or two of pace since the peak of their careers, Mourinho’s disinterest in high defensive lines is good news for both. They’re both still world class with their positional play also and have been as consistently dependable a centre half/full back partnership in Europe for the last seven seasons. Domestically at least, they’ll be regulars all year.
Next to Terry, both Cahill and David Luiz are great options and the first choice partnership for the future (and interestingly in Europe so far, too). The Englishman’s penalty box defending may be slightly better though Luiz’ physicality/ability to bring the ball forwards (alike to Lucio and Carvalho) will probably see him get more game time. At right back it seems the bigger and more experienced Ivanovic will be first choice over Cesar Azpilicueta.
The decision not to sign a ‘regista’ in this transfer window seemed a poor one at the time and has looked costly so far. Last season we saw more and more defences being allowed to focus on limiting space in between the lines for our attackers, knowing that the creative threat from deep represented very little to worry about. Having been able to rely on Xabi Alonso for three years, the long-passing stats of Ramires, Lampard and Mikel in comparison give Mourinho a real problem. Ramires’ place seems guaranteed for the majority of games whilst you’d expect Frank and Mikel to be rotated and selected based on how defensive the opposition is expected to play.
Without question the most interesting part of this Chelsea squad is its attacking midfielders. Several times in his career Mourinho has expressed a preference for having two quality players in each position –never before though has he had six such incredible players for only three roles.
Already, Eden Hazard has been earmarked as the most important of the six, with Jose having talked about the responsibility that comes with a talent like his; the Belgian has started every game so far, mainly on the left wing. On the right hand side, Andre Schurrle faces a difficult challenge to adapt his game. The German is a top talent but of all our attacking players, he has the most limited skill set. He’s best when counter attacking down the left flank and cutting back onto his right foot. With no chance of displacing Hazard however he faces a tough fight for a starting place with the more naturally right-sided, Kevin de Bruyne.
Regarding the #10 role, Jose’s fondness of Oscar comes as no surprise to me. His tactical intelligence, discipline (regarding defensive duties) and ability to play on the counter attack make him almost perfect for this Chelsea team, especially for when we play without a proper defensive midfielder. Elsewhere, it’s extremely difficult to judge how genuine Mourinho’s perceived distrust of Juan Mata truly is. The player himself has admitted to muscle problems which could explain his lack of game time so far. He may not offer as much as Oscar tactically, but the Spaniard remains comfortably our best player and there is certainly still a role for him in this side. Mourinho will always be a predominantly counter-attacking coach but he’ll know that Chelsea are going to dominate possession in the majority of games they play. And in those games I think Mata surely has to start.
Finally, regarding Willian, although he may have the most well-rounded skill set of all our attacking midfielders, it’s difficult to see just what he’ll add to the first XI. He makes space for others well drifting from a central position, but not as well as Oscar. He’s great at creating chances from out wide but not to the same extent as Hazard. Nor can he run with the ball like Schurrle, pass the ball like Mata; nor can he offer the same option as De Bruyne, operating in a deeper position. In short, in my view, a great player – but a wholly unnecessary purchase.
The centre-forward position is certainly the most difficult for Mourinho. The loaning of Lukaku was an extremely brave decision, though hopefully a beneficial one long-term. His sheer power in conjunction with the intelligence of his play made him arguably the best striker at the club – his lack of experience probably the only thing still counting against him.
In my opinion neither Fernando Torres nor Demba Ba hold up the ball or link up play to a standard befitting of the service they’re given. And the way Samuel Eto’o has been thrown straight into the side makes me fairly sure he’ll be the first choice #9 this year. He might not have the pace or the motivation he had a few years ago, but his quality is still obvious and his relationship with the manager just about assures me he’ll do a decent enough job.
The results and performances have been potently sobering so far, and disappointing to say the least. And though on paper we’re in no great trouble (level on points with both Manchester clubs in the league ahead of their derby game on Sunday, and still very much capable of qualifying from the CL Group Stages) there are two sources of concern that are becoming hard to ignore. The first being an almost total lack of cutting edge in the first six games. The quality of our transitional play and breaking into the final third has been shocking – and with our reliance on the attacking players to be creative, it’s something we just can’t afford to be poor at. The second worry comes from Mourinho himself and some of his comments pre and post-game. You almost get the sense that he doesn’t quite trust some of the younger players and is downplaying what should be expected of them. There may be some rationale behind his pessimism, but this deemphasising attitude doesn’t suit Mourinho and it doesn’t fill me with the confidence his assurances used to exude.
There’s still every possibility that come the end of the season, these first few weeks will have become a distant and irrelevant memory that occurred on the road to Premier League glory. There has been no loss of trust in Mourinho yet. If he can just begin to establish some more clearly defined roles in the team, show some greater consistency in selection, then the sharpness and the chemistry will come naturally. All that we’ve seen so far has shown us is that success is not going to come easy – something we already knew would be the case. Both the club and the coach have won hard earned titles before.