Tuesday January 20th, 2015

U.S. sports fans are well aware of the vagaries of free agency and trade acquisitions. For every big-money guy who delivers under the pressure of new expectations, there are countless others who aren't able to display the same skill with a different team.

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There are two crucial lessons in this which often get lost on fans while they consume ranking lists and debate over which player is better: 1) player evaluation isn't linear; and 2) how a player fits on one team has little to do with his fit with another. Basically, defining a player as the "seventh" or "19th" best is silly because how he plays is heavily influenced by where he does, and his value to another team may be much higher or lower than his current one without any real change in skill.

Now, imagine that kind of imperfect market but expanded globally, with players coming from myriad countries and competitions and trying to assimilate into one league that has the most physical, highest-tempo style in the world. That's the world of soccer transfers, which explains why a lot of them don't work out.

Indeed, there are tons of reasons transfers go can awry. Here are some of the principal Premier League categories from the past few seasons as TV money has fueled bigger gambles:

  • You spend a lot of money on a mediocre player (Shane Long to Southampton)
  • You spend an insane amount of money on an OK one-note player (Andy Carroll to Liverpool)
  • You spend a lot of money and the player isn't healthy (Kostas Mitroglou to Fulham)
  • You spend a ton of money and the player doesn't settle, is misused, gets hurt, and then validates your evaluation in Year 2 with the sickest rabona goal ever (Erik Lamela to Spurs)
  • You spend double the proper amount of money and get half the return because the player is English (dozens of violations)
  • You spend a lot of money on old guys because you're desperate and your owner has no discipline (most QPR transfers)

Even the true bluebloods aren't immune. Everyone makes mistakes.

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But every now and again, a club makes a transfer or two that end up being utterly perfect, an ethereal combination of fit, quality and immediate assimilation that leads to precisely the results the team imagines when they make the moves. This season, that would be Chelsea's acquisitions of Spain international teammates Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas. By absolutely nailing two major summer moves, the Blues very well may have bought themselves a championship.

By all accounts, the Blues should have won the league last season. They were easily the most prolific side against the other eventual Champions League teams, and they absolutely manhandled the teams in the top half of the table after New Year's Day.

Somewhat shockingly, though, Chelsea dumped 12 points to bottom-half teams, and consistently had trouble breaking down bunkered defenses. The height of the absurdity came in a 0-0 January draw with West Brom in which Chelsea attempted 39 shots, but 1-0 losses to Aston Villa and Crystal Palace were more damaging.

In the end, Chelsea's Mourinho-fueled counterattacking capability was perfect to abuse those teams with the hubris to think they could dictate the terms of engagement, but they lacked the playmaking and the poised finisher to kill off the lesser teams.

Fixing the second part of that equation was the more straightforward one. Mourinho was very well acquainted with Costa's ability, having lost to Atletico Madrid in last season's Champions League as well as during his time as manager at Real Madrid. Costa, when healthy, has been every bit of the predatory goal scorer he was heralded to be upon arrival, leading the league with 17 goals so far this campaign.

Those have come from just 33 shots on target. When he gets fair sight of goal, opponents are in massive trouble.

It only seems like every one of Costa's goals has been set up by Fabregas, who already has 15 helpers on the season and is only five away from Thierry Henry's league record. That's not quite the case, much like his arrival back in the Premier League after a stint at Barcelona was not really the perceived slam dunk that Costa's was considered. On a roster with a ton of very talented playmakers, it wasn't 100 percent certain who he would displace and what his role would be. Then he did this in the opening match at Burnley in August:

It hasn't really stopped since then, with Swansea the latest victim this past weekend in a 5-0 loss. First, Costa coolly finished a sublime buildup that started and ended with Fabregas:

Then Costa showed his lethal finishing capability after stealing a wayward backpass:

Finally, about 45 seconds later, it was Costa turning provider:

There's really not much teams can do to stop this version of Chelsea. The Blues still capable of destroying the opposition on the counter (as Everton found out in a 6-3 home loss early this season) but now can slice apart the most parked of buses, too. The Blues are top of the league (or darn close) in practically every notable underlying stat. What they're doing is not a fluke.

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So, despite a couple of unexpected recent stumbles, Chelsea is back to five points (and seven goals) ahead of the holders, Manchester City, and can more or less end the suspense this coming weekend, when the two meet at Stamford Bridge. With the way Chelsea is playing and the remaining schedules for both teams, it's very difficult to see City clawing back eight (or nine) points the rest of the way should Chelsea win the match; the Blues have only dropped 14 points all season so far.

The enhanced depth in the squad also should allow Mourinho to manage the squad through the four competitions Chelsea is still juggling (Capital One Cup, FA Cup and Champions League in addition to the league). The best part? The transfers didn't even cost the club very much thanks to the absolutely absurd $80 million or so Chelsea got for center back David Luiz, along with the big fee for Romelu Lukaku from Everton.

Sometimes, you just get things right, and when you do, the results can be beautiful. On the west side of London, Chelsea has already have spent five months celebrating the exploits of its two most heralded additions, and unless something changes pretty significantly, Chelsea and its fans will be doing a lot more of that over the next four.

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