The reason why yesterday’s opening fixture was such an intriguing challenge for this new-look Chelsea side, was that, as a contest, it looked set to test the most important problems which hindered us last season. And although it didn’t seem like it at the time, Scott Arfield’s goal to put us one-nil down, in effect only served to make the challenge even more interesting, as we found ourselves trailing a side who were notoriously good at defending leads last year, albeit in the Championship. Straight away we were forced to confront the specific tactics which had baffled us at least two too many times in the past five months, and not only did we conquer them, we conquered them emphatically. Oh, yes we did!
Though our previous two opening games of the League season, against Wigan and Hull City, both also delivered some exciting and promising attacking football, it’s been a very long time since we orchestrated the kind of play which succeeded the concession of the first goal last night. For 17 minutes we attacked relentlessly with precision, variety, cohesion and individual flair aplenty, effectively ending the contest even before the 30 minute mark. Diego Costa was well positioned to lash home the equaliser and his first competitive goal in England; and then was unfortunate not to be awarded a penalty for a clear trip by the goalkeeper. Andre Schurrle’s goal was probably better than anything we scored through all of last season, assisted as he was by a perfect chipped through ball from Fabregas, who in turn was found expertly by Ivanovic on the edge of the area. Fabregas and Ivanovic combined again to score the third from a corner, before we saw out the game in typically controlled and tame fashion.
The predominant narrative was of course the selection of Thibaut Courtois in goal, although I think we’d reached the point where only the most unperceptive of followers couldn’t have seen it coming and only the most sentimental would’ve allowed it to upset them. A far more interesting talking point was the immediate impact of Fabregas’ presence in midfield, where the absence of positional restrictions allowed him to express all aspects of his quality. To dictate play from deep (as he often did collecting the ball from the centre halves) with such composure allowed us to control the tempo and work the ball intelligently through midfield. His link up play with Diego Costa in the final third made our more advanced approach play immeasurably sharper/more dangerous compared to last season, also. In 45 minutes of football he demonstrated exactly what he’ll bring to this side, in terms of both controlling the game and creating chances. On an opening weekend where no team particularly stood out, the mercurial Spaniard reintroduced himself to the division with a performance which suggests he may well be its most pivotal addition this summer.
Other attacking players in the squad seemed to benefit individually from Cesc’s involvement also. Eden Hazard, bereft of the creative responsibility that had begun to weight too heavily on him last season, looked dangerous and unpredictable every time he received the ball in space. Oscar also, lining up next to the Spaniard seemed to be in his ideal role, relatively free to move and pick up clever positions, he helped provide an effortless dynamism as well as a calmness to the midfield, with the security of Nemanja Matic sweeping up everything in behind. Perhaps the one player to have looked slightly out of place in this extremely fluid and technically skilled front six, was Andre Schurrle; but though the German might not contribute so effectively to these attacking sequences, he can sure as hell make use of them, as he showed with the quality of his run and finish for our second goal. Perhaps Willian may remain a more appropriate choice for that position on the right, but Schurrle provides some invaluable variety to our front line and, as his career thus far shows, when given the opportunity he’ll score goals and he’ll score a lot of them.
Sky Sports pundits after the game spoke enthusiastically of the early signs of Mourinho having assembled a side bearing promising resemblances to the most successful groups of his career. When at their best, Porto in 2004, Chelsea in 2006 and Inter in 2010 were as comfortable dominating possession as they were lethal on the counter attack; they had the strength and the resilience to grind out wins from poor performances, they had the size and the power to be solid when defending set piece and to be a consistent threat when taking them. And crucially, they had the guile from players like Deco, Frank Lampard and Wesley Sneijder to unlock those stubborn defences. In a word, they were adaptable. They had the perfect blend of qualities and characteristics to negotiate, and even dominate league seasons.
And now, the VERY early signs are that the Portuguese manager has put together a team, potentially capable of not only emulating these legendary sides, but even surpassing them. Certainly, it would be foolish to predict on the basis of so little evidence that this could be the best ‘Mourinho-team’ ever built, but it seems clear that at this moment, he might have the best set of raw ingredients he’s ever had to work with.
Claude Makelele and Esteban Cambiasso were fine, maybe even world class defensive midfielders but neither offered the sheer athleticism or forward drive which Matic can provide. Lampard and Sneijder might have immortalised themselves at Chelsea and Inter, through the brilliance of their contributions but neither were ever as gifted an all-round playmaker as Cesc Fabregas is now. Likewise, Costa may never emulate the likes of Drogba or Diego Milito for the importance of the goals they scored, but he’s a more complete striker than either of them; (providing better hold up play than the Argentine, and more intelligence/industry off the ball than the Ivorian). Courtois is probably more talented than either Cech or Julio Cesar, whilst the likes of Damien Duff, Goran Pandev, and even a young Arjen Robben were simply not even in the same league as Oscar or Eden Hazard.
After disappointing at Real Madrid with more ambitious tactics than he’s used to, his next job was always going to see a retreat to the methods which had previously served him so well. And now, a year into the job, he has exactly what he needs in terms of personnel, to compete for trophies in a manner which utilises his exact strengths as a coach. Failure to add to his list of trophies this season and there really will be no excuses.
Leicester City Preview:
The season has begun and now the games will start coming thick and fast and it’s all very exciting. Every chance to consolidate and build upon these promising early signs should be seen as an opportunity to relish. Leicester are probably the perfect competition for us next up also, being a slight step up in quality from Burnley and also being in form after an impressive, spirited draw against Everton in which they equalised twice. They should be a good test but a relatively easy three points, all the same.
The team is still difficult to predict, but I think maybe Willian and Ramires will get the chance to start, with both in need of minutes. Filipe Luis hopefully will be fit enough to start as well. A Chelsea win to nil seems like a safe prediction, our home record against promoted teams is close to immaculate, and as at Turf Moor last night, even if we aren’t at our best, the huge gulf in quality in all areas should see us through quite comfortably. Top of the table after week 1, here’s to staying there for the next nine months!