With our European training camp concluded, and with the entire squad now reassembled back in London, the run in to the new league season has surely begun. But though it hasn’t been the most impressive set of performances we’ve produced in warm up games so far, this has easily been the most fascinating preparation period the club has endured in recent memory. Three new signings (along with the odd re-signing/recalling) may be nothing new; never however, have three signings each represented such profound, potentially game-changing improvements, and not just within their positions, but to the entire squad as a whole. This pre-season has been about fine-tuning the squad. After years of recruiting with a distinct focus on the long-term, we’re now ready to compete immediately for every major trophy on offer. Here are 10 thoughts from our opening four games on the continent…
1) To begin with the sole negative comment, so far all of the promising signs and displays of potential we’ve seen from youth team players and new additions, have unfortunately been offset by a frustrating overall lack of sharpness and cohesion, which wasn’t really a concern until I saw Arsenal pick apart Benfica time and again with some beautiful attacking plays in the Emirates Cup. Manchester Utd look to mean business with some impressive results stateside also. Mourinho’s second half changes against Werder Bremen made it clear that fitness was his priority rather than chasing the largely irrelevant result. We do look a little further off the pace than some of our rivals however; there’s a lot of important work to be done this coming fortnight.
2) Filipe Luis will do wonders for Eden Hazard’s game. Already the Brazilian has shown through the intensity of his movement, as well as the quality of his passing and crosses in attacking positions, our threat from the left wing should be unrecognisable from last season, when Azpilicueta played the full back position in an extremely (and perhaps wisely) self-limiting style. All through the previous campaign, Hazard was too easily double-teamed and dragged inside by the opposition’s left sided players. Having a full back with both the energy to constantly offer support, as well as the technical skill to work the overlap and create chances himself, this will bring a much needed sense of balance to our left sided attacks as well as providing Hazard more opportunities to get into 1on1 situations against his marker.
3) Fabregas must play in Midfield. Oscar is our #10. Perhaps even more important, is the difference Cesc Fabregas’ presence will make to the role Oscar has in this team. The young Brazilian is still by a distance our most tactically valuable player. Not only with his willingness to press his defenders and track back into midfield, but also his selfless lateral movement in the final third, he can create space for his team mates like no one else in the squad. But too often last season, these tendencies in Oscar’s game were over exploited. It was as if Mourinho had forgotten that the player’s industriousness was what set him apart from other world class playmakers; and not what made him world class in the first place. And he subsequently lost all form. Having Fabregas in a deeper midfield role where he can arrow lobs and through balls quickly into space should relieve the massive burden Oscar endured, having to constantly drop back to smoothen and liven up the midfield play. This season he should be allowed (and entrusted) to enjoy his best position, all year.
4) Diego Costa will bring up everyone around him. The most obvious and important way in which Costa will improve the side is of course, by scoring goals. But already it seems clear he’ll be capable of contributing in many other ways. His hold up play will allow his supporting midfielders more oppurtunites to find good attacking positions on the break. His physicality in the penalty box as well as his movement, peeling off the shoulder and bursting into those pockets of space only the very best forwards seem able to find, should bring out the best in our creative talent, as well provide them with space to work in, pre-occupying as it will, at least two, maybe even three or four defenders at a time.
5) Nemanja Matic is a fine player. The Serb is probably the only player in the squad right now who looks ready to start a league game. He’s wasted no time reminding everybody what made him such an exceptional addition last season. He was a revelation but the arrival of Cesc Fabregas now offers him the chance to take his game to another level. Together they comprise the archetypal Premier League midfield partnership –similar to the Alonso/Mascherano double anchor which was so effective at Liverpool. The Serb can trust Fabregas to be creative in a way he never could with Ramires and so can afford to be more selective with his forward passing, which is a tad inconsistent, although generally very good. Costa will be the target man he was missing last year to feed off of his dangerous long balls.
6) Marco Van Ginkel plays like a young Aaron Ramsey. It isn’t sensible right now to be too judgemental on a player who’s played so few senior competitive games but it seems unlikely the young Dutchman will be seriously challenging for a place in the starting XI. He’s clearly a tenacious, technically competent young player, but looks as though he’d probably be more suited to Italian or Spanish football at this point, where the pace of the game is generally slower. This would’ve been a fair criticism of Aaron Ramsey at Arsenal too, until last year when the Welshman visibly became a much better athlete, quicker, stronger and willingly more physical with his challenges. Van Ginkel may have to improve in this manner also, if he wants to become a regular starter.
7) Zouma not ready to challenge the starting places either. I’m still not convinced the club weren’t in error to retain the young Frenchman over Tomas Kalas. Zouma is clearly a phenomenal athlete with frightening potential but he’s still so raw. Regular game time would probably be more beneficial to his development right now than simply learning from, and being back up for Terry and Cahill, whose partnership at centre half looks utterly non-negotiable.
8) A new wide role for Torres? Despite Diego Costa’s polite insistence he expects a tough fight for a starting role with his Spanish teammate; Torres will start the season as the clear second choice. It does seem possible though that the two will enjoy some game time on the pitch together, as Mourinho has been experimenting with using Fernando on the wings, where, though he surely won’t start many games, his dribbling and (surprisingly good) crossing skills could make him a useful impact player. Maybe?
9) Azpilicueta to start season on the bench. Despite being nothing but brilliant for two years, for the third season in a row it looks as though the Spaniard will have to fight his way into the first team, with his versatility likely to hold him back initially. Whilst solid on both sides, both Ivanovic and Filipe look to have an unbreakable grip on their full back positions for the time being.
10) Youth players to step up this season. History would suggest that when a Chelsea manager insists this is the season that the club will look to promote youth team players into the senior set up, he’s lying, or at least ultimately unable to do so. This time though, Jose’s insistence that he will have failed if the likes of Lewis Baker, Isaiah Brown and Dominic Solanke don’t eventually become first team players (as well as England internationals) caries an air of more genuine sincerity. Baker in particular looks an awesome prospect, as he invariably takes up great positions and chooses the perfect pass. Jeremie Boga and Izzy Brown attack with an impressive maturity also, while Andreas Christensen plays with an almost impossible calmness at the back. This is a wonderful pool of young talent for Mourinho and his staff to develop – he’s completely correct to suggest it’ll be a travesty if at least a handful don’t become Chelsea players and he will be most certainly to blame.