There’s certainly a lot of criticism to be made of Chelsea so far this season. But whilst there hasn’t been any shortage of it per se, it’s been invariably delivered (for the most part) in a clearly prevaricating manner. And it’s no mystery why – if we defeat Arsenal on Monday evening then we will be top of the Premier League going into Christmas, something we’ve only ever managed to do three times, with each occasion preceding a title win five months later.
The heat has been rightly turned up this last week however after two dire performances against Sunderland and Crystal Palace, arguably the two worst teams in the division. To make matters worse, over the 90 minutes it cannot be argued that either opponent played well. I read many suggestions after both games that Palace deserved a draw or that Sunderland deserved for the game to go into extra time. They didn’t. They were terrible; making it even more to our shame that we struggled so badly. To come undone against the smaller teams when they play well is one thing; to suffer when they play badly is something else entirely.
I guess there are two ways of looking at our current league position. The first is to suppose that given we’re so close to the top having played so badly, when our form improves, as it surely must, we’ll end up coasting to our 4th PL win. The other viewpoint is that we’re very lucky to be involved in the title race and when Man City improve, as they surely will, we’ll only fall further and further behind.
What has annoyed me personally however the most this season, irrespective of results, is that so far we’ve been all but indistinguishable from the Chelsea of the last two seasons – where we are intermittently brilliant but so frustratingly prone to lapses; comfortable and commanding in possession but unable to break through deep defences, despite this multitude of creative talent and also far, far too wasteful with chances when they do come along. Admittedly, these were issues I thought Mourinho would have at least gone some way too addressing, if not solved by this stage. But whilst it’s plain to see, that the Portuguese is out of his comfort zone working to build a side around young attacking players, perhaps as he was at Real Madrid, where the pressure to play attacking football always has been and always will be immutable, I’m not worried.
Ever since his Inter side “parked the bus” so unashamedly at the Camp Nou en route to their 2010 Champions League win, the myopic opinion that Jose’s teams have always been relentlessly boring and defensive has only grown more widespread. And it simply isn’t true. Whether his sides have been boring is anyone’s opinion. Whether they were defensive is not. Throughout his career I’ve adjudged him to be extremely adaptable, at times playing some very attacking football i.e. his 3-1 win over Barcelona in the first leg of that semi-final tie and his 4-2 win over Frank Rijkaard’s side at Stamford Bridge, where on both occasions he outplayed and out-attacked the opposition. Mourinho can create an excellent attacking team from this group; I’m sure of it.
The fact that our opponents on Monday are also going through a tough period gives this game an odd feel, considering it’s between 1st and 2nd place in the table. In their last three games, Arsenal have drawn at home to Everton, conceding the equaliser late on, lost 2-0 in Naples and 6-3 at the Etihad. Wenger’s side have stuttered a couple of times already this season but have so far have always managed to regroup quickly. Now however, they’re facing their first true period of real examination. Lose to us on Monday and not only would they forfeit top spot for the first time since September, but, given their league defeats to both Manchester clubs already, then some serious doubts and questions would have to be raised about whether this side has the experience and the fortitude to defeat their domestic peers when it matters most. And as recent history shows, when confidence starts to fall and prospects begin to diminish, the only way is down for this Arsenal side.
I’m unsure what to make of Mourinho’s comments after the defeat to Sunderland. After hinting strongly he would be making tactical changes to make Chelsea more solid, but simultaneously confessing that this not what he wants to do. We saw him briefly experiment with a 4-3-3 formation a few weeks ago, and then switch back to a 4-2-3-1 immediately after defeat in Basel. Given our tricky upcoming fixture list against (Arsenal, Liverpool, Swansea and Southampton) the four sides in the division who value possession the most, if Mourinho intends on reverting to a more defensive/counterattacking system to help negotiate this end-of-year period, then it’s a decision I can get behind. Long term however, it’s a tactic and a system totally incongruent with the composition of this squad. Ramires, Mikel and Lampard are not a particularly solid midfield three, whilst Hazard and Oscar are not suited to play as wingers, with both far too prone to drifting inside and with Mourinho unlikely to leave out either in favour of more natural wide players – Schurrle and De Bruyne for example – we’ll end up playing far too narrowly and leaving too much space in behind the full backs. Which is why, against Arsenal at least, I think we’ll stick to a 4-2-3-1, only perhaps with Juan Mata and Oscar positioned deeper than usual.
For the Gunners, Jack Wilshere has moronically got himself suspended for profanely gesturing at the crowd, meaning Santi Cazorla will probably come back in. Along with his superstar German teammate, Cazorla and Ozil represent their team’s two most dangerous attacking/creative threats but both have been slightly off-colour in recent games. Theo Walcott however, back from injury, picked up straight from where he left off last season with a good performance and two goals at Man City last Saturday. In defence, Laurent Koscielny’s injury means that Wenger may have to select the worryingly slow centre half partnership of Mertesacker and Vermaelen, meaning there should be space for Torres to run into if he’s in the mood.
Simply, I think the result of this game should come down to how Chelsea and Mourinho perform. If we use a narrow 4-3-3 and try to play primarily on the counter then I think we’ll get caught out by Walcott and Ozil and probably lose 2-0. If we play sensibly but with some ambition and if Juan Mata plays well (as he often seems to against Arsenal), and if we leave out the stupid errors in defence then I think we’ll make a great game of it and come away with at least a point. It’s worth noting we haven’t lost to a genuine top 4 contender yet this season, having saved our best football for the sides who try and play football against us, rather than defend in deep set, narrow lines. Let’s hope that’s a trend that continues into New Year.