In many ways, Sunday was the quintessential Chelsea cup final victory. We didn’t fulfil our potential to entertain or dominate the game from an attacking perspective. We didn’t fully demonstrate our superiority over the opposition either, but in so many respects, we were exceptional. From the moment the game began we showed our experience, playing calm, disciplined, intelligent, reserved and clinical football. Even for the opening half an hour, when Tottenham were arguably the better team, we never allowed them to acquire the momentum or generate the confidence they would need to turn the result in their favour.
Tactically we were very good also, although I thought the effectiveness of Mourinho’s strategy was overplayed slightly, with ‘scoreboard journalism’ rearing its head in the aftermath. Surely, Kurt Zouma’s deployment was more facilitated by necessity than born of strategic innovation; and though he did a good job overall, he failed in the most part to contain Christian Eriksen, especially early on. Going into a final without a defensive midfielder however, would have been the most un-Mourinho like thing ever. Finals are for winning, after all.
In the end it was fantastic to see how much the trophy meant to the team. The delight of the manager in particular, was stirring evidence of the taste he still has for winning titles, and the desire to continue accruing honours as the manager of our club. Since his first season in England his ambition to win the League Cup has demonstrably surpassed that of his rivals. It’s no coincidence he’s won it 3 out of 5 times, never having lost a game over normal time. His approach to this competition is symptomatic of his overall approach to management and his belief that winning titles creates its own prestige and is its own reward and every achievable piece of silverware is worth aiming for. He understands as well as anyone how success breads more success and that if a team can play whilst shouldering the responsibility and expectation of winning every competition they enter, then half of the battle has been won.
Yesterday, in much of a similar vein, was the perhaps the most typical late-night, mid-week away game league victory from a Mourinho side you can imagine. It had escaped no one how much of a potential stumbling block West Ham represented, despite their recent poor form. With nothing else important, other than our three points, this was another outstanding demonstration of our credentials as title favourites.
Five things we learned:
1) Ramires excels in a 4-3-3: By now the Brazilians strengths and weaknesses are well understood but yesterday was the first reminder in a while, especially in games like this one, how useful and effective he can be. When not burdened with responsibilities of playing in a double pivot, or providing width on the right, the ground which he can covers and the regularity with which he contributes to attacks is remarkable. His assist for Hazard was excellent; he was unfortunate not to score a header himself late on also, whilst his tackling and tracking in the middle was as strong as always. As games of this nature increase in frequency, from now until the end of the season, he may become an increasingly key player.
2) Cesc and Oscar in a battle against their own reputations – Barcelona’s club statement after the sale of Fabregas to Chelsea, if which they criticised him for fading badly in each of his three seasons in Catalonia, was wholly unnecessary, embarrassingly petty, but it was also kind of true. Traditionally he has always dipped slightly in form in the second half of seasons – as has his Brazilian midfield colleague since arriving in England. This is a problem. Hazard can’t carry the attack on his own. Costa goals aren’t as profuse as they were. We need our two most influential creative talents to pick up their form quickly. We’re certainly unlikely to make meaningful progression in the Champions Leauge without both Cesc and Oscar playing well.
3) Top talent to top player – One player who definitely isn’t fading however is Eden Hazard, as he continues to make the transition from top talent to top player, which his manager challenged him with last summer. Last night he showed all of what his talent has to offer – as a counter attacker, an instigator in attacking positions, a contributor of goals, as well as willing defender also. His improvements might seem minor when considered on their own but the collective effect has been dramatic. Truly he is one of the best in the world right now and maybe has moved ahead of Alexis Sanchez in the running for the Premier League POTY as well. He’ll certainly end up with more trophies than the Chilean, either way.
4) Kurt Zouma is not a midfielder – There is so much to be praised about the Young Frenchman and his last two performances. The tenacity he’s shown and his evident commitment to team has been commendable, but this current midfield role looks necessarily like a stop gap for him. Zouma, when you assess his attributes as a player, is a pure centre back. His assets are his aggressiveness, pace, power as well as a natural conservativeness. Of course his technical skill can and almost certainly will improve, for now though, the heart of the defence is clearly where he belongs.
5) We aren’t throwing this league away – City’s defeat at Anfield has once again left us in an extremely strong position – five points clear with a game in hand. More reassuring than the shortcomings of Pellegrini’s team however is our increasing competence in dealing with the kind of challenges we faced last night. Yesterday was certainly not the performance of a team who were in any mind to throw away a (potentially) 8 point lead at this stage of the season. Every single thing you could take from the game, from the tactics, the individual quality of the goalkeeping and defending, to the audacious quality of Willian’s time wasting at the end, suggested this was a team who knew exactly what they were doing, and what they had to do, to end their five year wait for a league crown – hopefully a wait that will last just a couple of months longer.