In a sense the most deflating thing about our Champions League defeat to PSG earlier in the month, was the seamlessness with which it brought our entire season to a tepid, rather uninteresting anti-climax. For such a long time, this campaign had been generating and sustaining huge quantities of ambition; talk of undefeated seasons and quadruples was ridiculous, but it was born of hype which we were justifiably inspiring. It’s a real shame that it should all have dissolved as early on as March. Though the League Cup was a hard earned and satisfying accomplishment, as will be lifting the Premier League Trophy in May (hopefully); from our current position, it feel as though to be crowned champions would hardly be to have achieved anything noteworthy, rather we simply need to avoid completely messing things up and in the process confirm our status as the least poor of a very mediocre table of teams.
The other thing which was gutting about our elimination to the French champions, was how it meant for the second time in successive years, we had been bested (and outperformed) by the qualities which we have always championed and embodied ourselves, across the duration of our career in the Champions League. As with Atletico Madrid last April, PSG didn’t so much outplay us, as they outfought and outthought us, and ultimately demonstrated a far greater desire to win. Follow any club for long enough and you will become familiar with all manners of defeats. But for any side, let alone an elite level team, to play for 90 minutes against 10 men, and to twice concede equalising goals from corner kicks late on, is frankly embarrassing, and it makes it very difficult not to ask questions of the player’s professionalism, as well as the manager’s decisions with regards to game management.
Maybe these defeats would be easier to swallow, if they were easier to understand. From his senior squad, Mourinho isn’t exactly short of leaders or experienced winners – few, if any of the starting line up against Paris, will have been daunted by the occasion. Nor is he short of players who specifically are endowed the skills and experiences to handle a situation, such as we found ourselves in after Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s sending off. But this has now become a disturbing trend. Historically, it’s almost invariably been said of Chelsea, that they are excellent at defending a lead, at managing games and securing results. But yet in our last 13 matches, we have conceded 10 equalisers and thrown away six points (as well as our place in the quarter finals of CL) from winning positions. Ultimately the only consequence of this problem may be that we win the league by a comfortable margin, instead of an imperious one, nevertheless, it should still be a cause for concern, that whar has been a dependable strength of the team for so long, is not only fading, but potentially becoming an area of weakness instead.
My theory is this: Mourinho has made his reputation and achieved his success by being a master of knowing exactly what to do, in order win matches/trophies, through doing the bare minimum. His tactics, especially in big games, are dominated by a cautious (sometimes overcautious) mindset, that invariably has made his sides difficult to defeat, but which on occasion, has also proved an unnecessary downfall. At Real Madrid, the source of his problems was plain to see, and this season, to a lesser extent, he’s suffered similar problems with this Chelsea team. Naturally, his favoured line-up is an attacking group of players, who play at their best when attempting to control and dominate the game, whereas his own predilection will always be to play reactively and counterattack; the result is a visible compromise which allows neither the coach, nor the players to maximise the output of their talents.
I think he has an important decision to make. Losing matches (even important matches) is inevitable and ultimately is acceptable. But what shouldn’t be acceptable is losing matches in the manner of our defeat to PSG, in which we passively and indecisively allowed ourselves to throw away the tie. From next season, in his recruitment and preparation, Mourinho needs to decide: either we make the necessary changes in tactics and personnel to become the kind of physical and conservative team which can reliably defend a lead, or we fully commit to this more attacking brand of play which we’ve utilised on occasion, but deserted in key moments, often to a negative effect. (Leading at the Etihad with a man advantage, springs to mind).
The one obvious positive we can draw however, is the opportunity we’ve been given to focus entirely on securing our first league title in five years. I think this season, the Premier League was always the one trophy which was necessary for us to win, in order to confirm our progress and validate the work which Mourinho and the club have done, building this team over the past few years. A draw against Southampton and yesterday’s narrow victory away to Hull City leave us six points clear, with a game in hand and a goal difference advantage over Man City who continue to struggle in finding any kind of consistent form.
It’s disappointing after the start we made to the season, that we may well end up winning the league by default, which is to say by virtue of everybody else simply being too poor to make a serious challenge. It’s disappointing also how we look set to stumble, rather than stride over the finishing line, as so many players look drained, with the exception of Eden Hazard, and all painfully short of the form they enjoyed in the first half of the season. Maybe if our situation wasn’t quite so comfortable, our performances wouldn’t be so lethargic. Having already thrown away an eight point lead however, and having been defeated in Europe as a result of an embarrassingly complacent display, one would hope we’ve learned our lesson and won’t let this lead slip. The rest of this season is now simply about doing the professional job we’ve struggled to produce at crucial times this year, and making sure the PL trophy ends up in the corner of South West London, where it belongs come May. All future plans and improvements can wait until after.