Like most particularly famous football managers, Jose Mourinho comes in for a considerable amount of unfair criticism, which is especially impressive considering how much there is to fairly criticise about him. There are occasions however, when even his most avid apologists must concede, sometimes he really does ask for it. Saturday’s remarkably comfortable victory over an in-form Stoke City should’ve represented an opportunity for the team and certain players (mainly, Willian) to receive due praise, for the quality and professionalism of their performance. The dominant narrative that continues suffuse Stamford Bridge however, is the manager and his relationship with his centre forwards, about whom his comments made this week bordered on the contemptuous.
So much has been written about Chelsea’s front line this season that the details of the situation have long since become axiomatic. Even the most passive followers of the EPL understand where the problems in our squad exist. It frustrates me then that despite the longevity of the conversation and transparency of the situation; the same old torpid contentions continue to be raised. The question of why the club didn’t purchase a striker in either of the past two transfer windows might not be an unreasonable one, but the insinuation it carries that 1) suitable elite level strikers are just readily available and 2) Fernando Torres, Demba Ba and Samuel Eto’o (with their 700 career goals between them) are so poor that virtually anyone could’ve done better, I find tremendously boring in its naivety.
Clear steps have been taken over the course of the season to transform this team into a side fully compatible with Mourinho’s strengths as a coach i.e. defensive organisation and the counter attack. The obvious problem is that when such a side comes up against a team with the attacking talent of Barcelona, Bayern, PSG and Real Madrid, the most exquisite defensive organisation in the world is effectively worthless, in the absence of a truly exceptional target man up front to play off. Whilst almost equally as important however, is that against sides who’ll defend even deeper than ourselves, a great striker is equally crucial, to help the midfield pick apart stubborn defences/provide the ruthless penalty box prowess the smaller sides are incapable of dealing with.
In summary, the sort of striker Chelsea must be looking to recruit i.e. the sort of striker capable of offering both of these qualities, don’t come along particularly often. With Edinson Cavani snatched up by Paris St-Germain, Robert Lewandowksi deliberately running down his contract ahead of his move to Bayern, and Diego Costa yet to explode into the goal-scoring animal he has become, it becomes slightly clearer why Chelsea seemed to pursue Wayne Rooney for so long and as doggedly as they did last summer – the Englishman being possibly the only other potentially available striker in Europe with the work ethic, the physicality, the mentality and the technical skill to play in such a paradigmatically reactive, Jose Mourinho team.
When every move is planned as meticulously, every detail considered as critically as it is in the mind of our Portuguese coach, it becomes folly to expect that he should endorse the signing of just any centre forward (or retain a 20 year old at the expense of his long term development) because they might do a better job than his current trio. He surely knows now that with the quality of the defence and the depth of talent in midfield he has to work with, his selection of a centre forward to sign in the summer is now the key piece of recruitment work that will determine whether or not the second Chelsea side of his career can/will be as successful as the first.
However, having said all this, I think Mourinho’s treatment of his current strikers this past week or so, has been appalling. For a manager so famed for his psychological/man-management skills, his near total isolation of Demba Ba and his particularly unsubtle criticism of Fernando Torres (a known delicate soul) has been bewildering. To call out underperforming players is one thing, but to make them scapegoats for the failure of the group is another entirely and from my point of view, it isn’t acceptable. For the past couple of months, Mourinho’s entire demeanour has been too negative and its effect on the players has been visible. In interviews and press conferences they’ve begun to look and sound like don’t believe they’re currently good enough to win titles, affecting an almost defeatist disposition that in my opinion, a supporter of this Chelsea team is entitled to never have to tolerate.
Thanks to Mourinho we might now be in a position we’re only the signing of a top striker away from having a side truly comparable with the best in Europe (for the first time since 2010), but at the same time, after what will most likely be a trophy-less season in which our chances have been so excessively understated, he owes it to us to get the signing of such a striker absolutely spot on.
As for our second leg against the French Champions tomorrow, things aren’t looking particularly promising. Without Nemanja Matic or Ramires I think we really have no choice but stock the midfield with attacking players and press them as hard and as deep as we can, in search of some early goals. Although in the first half at Parc des Princes last week, watching PSG, I certainly didn’t see a side incapable of conceding multiple goals to this Chelsea attack. Neither fullback is especially impressive defensively, whilst Marco Veratti and Blaise Matuidi, when relentlessly harried by Oscar and Willian were both shown to capable of dangerous lapses of concentration in their defensive third.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s absence is another cause for optimism I suppose, but with the Swede injured, Laurent Blanc being forced to field Cavani centrally with Lavezzi and Lucas Moura on the flanks actually sets up his side almost perfectly for the counter attack. And of course, the longer Chelsea go without scoring, the more opportunities they’ll have to score on the break.
Ultimately, given we have no choice but to go and attack, I think if we can avoid conceding then we should complete another phenomenal comeback – I don’t see that happening however. At least regardless of the result, the bright side will be easily identifiable. The PL remains hugely more feasible than the Champions League this season, and having nothing but our final five matches to focus on can only help our chances towards that end. I think most would have admitted progress to this year’s semi-final stage would’ve been a welcome bonus at the start of the season.