New-look Chelsea addresses needs, has makings of a title contender
It was only the first game of the season and it was only against Burnley – the greatest outsider in the history of the Premier League, according to its manager, Sean Dyche – but Chelsea’s performance on Monday was mightily impressive. To the steel of last season, it seems, has been added a genuine cutting edge in Diego Costa and some passing guile from Cesc Fabregas.
As Chelsea killed off the 3-1 result in the second half, the only slight hesitation in anointing it as title favorite was the thought that it had done much the same against Hull City, like Burnley a promoted side, on the opening weekend last season. Perhaps most significantly, this looked like a Jose Mourinho side. Much of the talk last season of little horses and the bleating about how inexperienced his team was bluster, but there was a good reason Mourinho sought to deflect pressure.
He was trying to lower expectations as he constructed a squad to his own specifications. This is a familiar pattern: at Porto, Chelsea (in his first spell), Inter MIlan and Real Madrid, he won the league in his second season. Any thought he might compromise and try to carry on with some sort of bodged hybrid of the squad he had inherited and the squad he wanted disappeared after the Capital One Cup defeat to Sunderland in December.
At least in English football, he has rarely looked wearier than he did that night as he spoke flatly of going back to basics and how defending for a clean sheet was “the easiest thing in football”. Nine days later Chelsea went to Arsenal and drew 0-0. Before that Arsenal game, Chelsea had played 16 league matches last season, scoring 2.0 goals per game and conceding 1.12, while collecting 2.06 points per game.
From the Arsenal game on, Chelsea scored 1.77 goals per game, conceded 0.41 and picked up 2.23 points per match. The Mourinho style had been imposed. All that was lacking was the ability to unpick opposing teams who sat deep against it. Chelsea’s record against the top four last season was excellent: five wins and a draw from six games. Against teams that attacked it, it happily absorbed pressure and sprang forward on the break.
Where Chelsea lost the title – and it finished only four points adrift of City, for all Mourinho’s insistence that the championship was impossible – was in its results against those lower down the table: notably the home defeat to Sunderland, the home draws against West Bromwich Albion, West Ham United and Norwich City and the away defeats to Aston Villa and Crystal Palace.
Chelsea will, of course, face teams who defend rather better than Burnley did – just as last season Hull’s supine attitude disguised the problems to come, but this season it looks to have the wherewithal both to outwit and to outmuscle opponents. Diego Costa, after 25 goals in La Liga last season, already has his first in the Premier League, a powerful instinctive finish as the ball came back to him off a post.
He is a poacher but he is also rather more, an awkward and intelligent player who will create space for others and generate half-chances for himself with his constant alertness and capacity to unsettle defenders. Even more significant on Monday, though, was Fabregas. He seems already to have gelled with Nemanja Matic and some of his passing – notably the angled through ball for Andre Schurrle to score the second – was sublime.
“The team played very well, but I agree with Cesc being man of the match, because he and Matic controlled the game and dictated the intensity of it,” said Mourinho. “They decided how to control the pace. They were both good brains in this team, and I am happy with that because last season we could not control the game as we controlled it today.”
Fabregas never quite lived up to expectations at Barcelona, something Mourinho, perhaps not surprisingly given his relationship with the club, blamed on the way he had been used.
“He moved to Spain also, so for the last 10 years we have been in the same league for six or seven,” Mourinho said. “I know exactly what he will bring. For Barça he was the fake nine, the No. 10 and winger but I know and he knows what is his best position so he is giving exactly what we need. Quick-thinking in midfield. He brings people in the same direction.”
Having witnessed that performance, Arsenal may be wondering why it didn’t pursue its first option on Fabregas, and Manchester United may be asking why the contact that had been made with the midfielder was dropped after Louis van Gaal took over as manager. But there was a third prong as well. When Branislav Ivanovic headed Chelsea’s third from a Fabregas corner, he was one of five monstrous presences in the Burnley box: John Terry, Gary Cahill, Matic and Diego Costa all represent a significant aerial threat.
If teams look to sit deep against Chelsea, they’d best be able to do so without conceding corners and free-kicks around the box because eventually somebody’s going to get on the end of a delivery. And Mourinho has brought Didier Drogba back to the club; Chelsea had presence in the air a year ago, but by signing Matic, Diego Costa and Drogba, Mourinho has enhanced it.
Chelsea’s summer signings were focused on specific needs and were made quickly, with a minimum of fuss. The result is a side that has all the strengths of last season - the direct running, the defensive discipline – and has tackled its obvious weaknesses. It will be extremely difficult to beat.