For those of you who don’t have BT Sport, you probably won’t be interested to know that every Saturday morning, prior to their weekly league game match-day programme, Darren Fletcher and Robbie Savage host a show (Fletch & Sav) where they spend two hours reading out loud from their twitter timelines and self-indulging in their own opinions. Normally, it passes without a single memorable contention or piece of insight, this morning though; Savage instigated a fairly interesting discussion when he suggested Chelsea had the best back five in all of Europe. His case was a reasonable one too. Though Bayern’s defence, man for man, is clearly superior, they don’t exactly spend a lot of their time defending in the Bundesliga, whilst the Chelsea back line is a proven unit and the bedrock of what is currently the best side in the country.
His case looked a less convincing one just a few hours later however, after a 2-1 defeat at Newcastle saw another pair suspect performances from Branislav Ivanovic and Gary Cahill, two players who have been genuinely and consistently excellent for the club for a long time, but whom equally, have been sub-standard overall to date this season.
Regarding our squad as a whole, the defence is the most obvious area where depth is an issue (with only five senior defenders registered to the first team), and clearly not having key senior members of the team performing to an expected level, only accentuates those issues. Today’s loss was further evidence of another unavoidable truth also. Through their character and their quality this current back four have developed an exceptional understanding but ultimately, there is a fundamental imbalance with which they will always have to contend. Fielding a natural centre half as your most attacking full-back and a right sided defender on the left, always leaves room for doubt as to whether the whole is as good as its parts.
For certain we are unlikely to see any changes in personnel made in the short term, if the form of Ivanovic and Cahill doesn’t begin to improve however; surely Filipe Luis will eventually have to come into to serious contention for a starting place. As the only naturally attacking full back in the squad, as well as being a player with a proven record of success and consistency when competing for major trophies, it makes no sense for him to be warming the bench week after week if we are only going to continue suffering from the sorts of problems we witnessed this afternoon. Continuity may be hugely important to a defensive line, as Mourinho pointed out in the build up to this match, this doesn’t and shouldn’t mean however, that superior continuity cannot be sort after.
The overall pattern of the game, for the first hour or so at least, wasn’t dissimilar to the Sunderland game last weekend, as we dominated possession but lacked quality and creativity in the final third. But whilst Diego Costa’s unavailability wasn’t a problem against Tottenham on Wednesday, the absence of Nemanja Matic proved a more difficult disadvantage to negotiate this time, as the threat of a counter attack was unmistakable from minute one. John Obi Mikel did a job but we were clearly far less secure with the Nigerian filling in for the Serb, and then moments before the opening goal, he blew a fantastic chance to score with a pathetic headed attempt from only eight yards out. I don’t want to be too critical but his performance really did symbolise a standard which we should be thankful to have finally transcended.
But while the standard of our defending was notably worse, our efforts to chase the game were much better compared the Sunderland draw. The introduction of Didier Drogba made a huge difference as he offered a level of hold-up play and an aerial threat which Diego Costa could not provide. Resorting to a more direct approach allowed to us to fashion more chances but still, we were hamstrung by our own lack of quality in threatening positions. Costa turned in what was surely his least impressive Chelsea performance to date, whilst Hazard, Willian, Oscar and Schurrle all failed in turn to create meaningful chances against an impressively determined and well-organised defence.
Without doubt the best thing to be taken from this result is that finally, all the ludicrously premature and boorish talk of Chelsea going unbeaten throughout the season can come to an end and TV and radio pundits can start earning their money seriously again. And as far we’re concerned, if the Sunderland game was a gentle reminder that we are not totally invincible, then this can be considered a serious and jarring wake-up call. This league title will have to be fought for until the end of the season and we cannot be allowed to imagine that performances of this standard will be inconsequential.
Luckily we now have a simple run of fixtures against Sporting, Hull City and Derby County to retrieve some momentum and evidence Mourinho’s hypothesis that this team won’t suffer a bad ‘moment’ this season, even though they will endure the occasional defeat. This run will precede a tricky congested run of fixtures going into the New Year, about which time the strength of our continued billing as favourites will be more assessable.
So many pieces this year have been written about this team; about their seeming perfection and potential to dominate the division (even in the long term). Many of them have been hugely over exaggerated but it’s worth remembering they all come from genuine observations in the first place. This group is often and can continue to be as good as everyone thinks – they have all the attributes to become the most successful group in the club’s history. Whether they have the character to deal with defeats and negotiate the most testing parts of a season is the only test which they have left to pass. The next few weeks should make for fascinating viewing.