After last week’s historic dismantling of Arsenal, there existed, you hoped, sufficient evidence to dismiss the defeat at Villa Park as just one of those anomalous blips, suffered by every team at one point or another, rather than the result of some more serious deep-lying issues. Yesterday’s defeat to Crystal Palace has made that position indefensible however, there are flaws in this side that run deeper than I think many realised and it looks like they could have all but cost us the league title.
There really wasn’t even a single positive to draw from yesterday. The team selection was just bizarre. Why on Earth were we playing three central midfielders against the most reactive side in the division? The fullbacks looked as stretched as they have done all year, against Jason Puncheon and Yannick Bolassie of all people; Gary Cahill was fortunate not to concede two penalties whilst John Terry also decided it seems to have his annual bad game, when his fellow defenders needed him the most. In the other half of the pitch meanwhile, we were constantly too narrow with our approach play and then wasteful when we finally did move into wide areas. Fernando Torres snatched at his chances all afternoon with sadly typical dubiety, whilst Eden Hazard should’ve done much better with the one decent chance we did manage to create.
The result means that our only remaining chance of league glory depends on us winning all six of our remaining games, although, as Mourinho confessed after the match, even if all six wins could be guaranteed, we’re still in a position where we’re uncomfortably reliant on the results of other teams. This likely failure to secure top spot means that for the first time since 2004, Chelsea will have gone four years without a league title, and Mourinho will have failed to win the league in two consecutive full seasons for the first time ever. He may have been downplaying his chances for months now but still, to go trophy-less in a season at Chelsea puts extra pressure on him to live up to his promise of making the club genuine contenders for next season. He simply has no choice but to back himself and his players all the way. To go two seasons without a trophy at Chelsea, I can’t imagine being tolerated too lightly.
Where have things gone wrong?
There’s no denying our attacking play can be inspiring, it can be beautiful to watch and on occasions, it can be totally irrepressible. But at no point this season could it ever have been described as systematic or methodical/a product of our tactical set up, rather than the individual quality of our forward players. And of course the problem with the latter being your key source of inspiration in creating chances, is that on frustrating afternoons like yesterdays, where so many players are out of sorts, then you become liable to drawing blanks against sides that really shouldn’t be causing you any problems.
Teams like Crystal Palace, West Brom, West Ham and Aston Villa are of course, all well drilled, respectable defensive sides – plus it can hardly be denied that when taking points from us this season, they all played extremely well when doing so. But they are also, by no means outstanding defensive outfits; I don’t think it’d be conceited to say that these aren’t the standard of defences that should be routinely causing us problems.
When assessing the progress made this year, it’s important that we recognise the quality of the work done, both on drastically improving the defence (only 9 goals conceded now in our last 21 matches) as well as in both transfer windows, with the midfield of the side considerably more well balanced than it was back in August. However, we also need to be honest about the state of our attack – where very little, if any progress has been made this year at all. In some respects, it’s only logical that we’ve struggled at times. Oscar, Eden Hazard and Andre Schurrle are all still young players, learning their trade in the Premier League. Whilst Willian and Mo Salah, before this year, had never even played a competitive match in a top European division. Factor in also the relative impotency of our centre forwards, compared to those of our main title rivals – it’s hardly a mystery that we’ve failed to keep up with City and Liverpool in the ‘Goals For’ column. We still haven’t been anywhere near consistently good enough in my opinion. Obviously under Mourinho, we should never expect to see any dazzlingly intricate attacking systems – for him to focus on the design of such systems would be a waste of his main talents as a primarily defensive coach anyway. Regardless, serious improvements are needed next year.
When I look at the Chelsea squad now, I see a platform and the potential for success with this core group of players, right through to the end of the decade. With the addition of a top level striker, along with the expected continued improvement of our young attacking midfielders, there’s no reason I can see why our frontline can’t reach the same level as our defence, which is already of a Champions League winning standard in my opinion. With this back six behind all of the raw attacking talent he already has to work with; Mourinho must know what an incredible opportunity he has here to build a fantastic team for the long term. Forget whatever he failed to do at Real Madrid, if he can’t create a dominant force with this group of players, then that would be the biggest failure of his managerial career to date.