Despite lopsided Champions League score, Chelsea far from convincing
Jose Mourinho stretched out his arms and turned to his bench with a shrug. For the second time in the opening six minutes, Chelsea's back line had been punctured with weird ease, Adam Szalai following Julian Draxler in sliding a shot just wide of the left-hand post.
His bafflement seemed to sum up Chelsea this season: it may sit second in the Premier League and is top of its Champions League group after Wednesday's 3-0 victory over Schalke 04, a point from qualification, but it has been far from convincing.
It tightened up after those early scares, with the decision to set Cesar Azpilicueta on the left to handle Draxler vindicated, but there was little fluency to Chelsea's play and, an Andre Schurrle free kick aside, it hadn't threatened when Samuel Eto'o gave the Blues the lead after 31 minutes. His goal against Hull City, when he pinched the ball from the goalkeeper Allan McGregor, should have been ruled out, but Wednesday's opportunism was entirely legitimate.
Eto'o is one of the game's most studious forwards, somebody who studies videos incessantly to work out where space may appear, where runs should best be made, where opponents might be vulnerable. He seems to have decided that goalkeepers regularly don't concentrate sufficiently when clearing the ball.
He loitered, seemingly taking a breather, as Timo Hildebrand rolled the ball out in front of him to clear, then, as the keeper trotted back to give himself a run-up, charged in. Hildebrand panicked and ended up kicking the ball straight into Eto'o, from where it rebounded into the net. Lucky? Perhaps, but also the product of Eto'o's sharpness. Still, it was a goal that stemmed from an individual's resourcefulness rather than any great team play, fretfulness dispelled by freakishness -- a "fox-goal" as Mourinho later put it.
There wasn't much semblance of pattern in the second half either and Petr Cech made a fine stretching save from Szalai before a Willian surge laid in Eto'o to clip home his second -- the Anzhi connection fashioning a chance that was superbly taken. But still there were moments of doubt, a strange patchiness to Chelsea's play before Demba Ba made absolutely sure of the three points, converting Frank Lampard's dinked pass with a tumbling volley.
"It's nothing to do with dropping this player or that player; it's to do with their mentality," Mourinho said. "They were strong. They started a bit nervous and they made a lot of mistakes. We lost a couple of balls in dangerous positions and we allowed them to counterattack in good situations. They had a couple of good chances but after that our team recovered some balance and we controlled the game."
Perhaps it is simply that it is taking time for a squad featuring so many un-Mourinho-like players to adapt to his methods -- a tremendous irony given that Chelsea for so long had the stamp of a Mourinho team after he had left the first time. But it's legitimate to wonder then whether it might not be up to Mourinho, at least in the short term, to adapt his approach as he shapes the squad to his template. After all, this is a squad that last season, under Rafa Benitez, won the Europa League, finished third in the Premier League and reached the semi-finals of both domestic cup competitions.
"We had comfortable ball possession and we recovered the ball well," Mourinho insisted. "When we lost the ball we were aggressive in the way we defended. Our three guys behind the striker were very strong when the team was losing the ball, recovering positions, and when the team won the ball they took very good positions and attacked the spaces."
It would be wrong to be too critical after what turned out to be a routine win, particularly given league results - if not performances - and it may be that this is just a work in progress. It's equally apposite that last week, when Chelsea beat Arsenal comprehensively in the Capital One Cup, it seemed evidence of a depth of squad that would lead it inevitably to overhaul Arsenal.
But Mourinho's reaction to the 2-0 loss at Newcastle, saying he had "smelled" imminent defeat and that he had made "11 mistakes" in his team selection, condemning his side's complacency, suggested he is feeling a certain frustration at his side's failure to convince.
A lack of discipline is not something often associated with Mourinho's sides, but he confirmed that Eden Hazard had been left out after missing training on Monday. "He's a kid," he said. "Kids make mistakes. Fathers have to be clever in the ways they educate their sons. He wanted to play, he didn't play, he's sad because he didn't play but we won and he'll be back on Saturday. That's the end of the story."
Mourinho may protest otherwise, but this remains an extremely strong squad. It, like so many Mourinho teams, has a habit of winning games without doing anything exceptional. It may be that it does power on to sweep all before it. But on the evidence of Wednesday, against a mediocre Schalke -- just sixth in the Bundesliga -- it is still far from the imperious force it probably should be.