Chelsea is still unbeaten, but can the Blues match Arsenal's Invincibles?
Depending on your perspective, I have spent the past month or so on Twitter either presciently or prematurely declaring the Premier League title race to be over. Unless Chelsea suffers a run of long-term injuries in key positions (looking at you, Cesc, for starters), it's really, really hard to see how any other team in the league will make a serious run at them over the next 26 matches. Manchester City looks too flaky and jaded, and no one else has a high enough ceiling.
While most of the other presumed contenders left gaping holes in their rosters come the end of the summer, Chelsea reinforced in exactly the ways it needed to to ensure the Blues would not repeat last season's nasty habit of dropping points to inferior teams. As you can see from this season chart from Statto.com, Chelsea has won all six matches it has played against the current bottom eight, by a combined margin of 14-3.
Combine that with The Special One's ability to consistently handle his peers, and Chelsea already having played its away matches at Manchester City, Manchester United, Everton and Liverpool (and being 10 minutes away from getting all 12 points from those matches), and you have a side that looks more or less invincible.
But will they be Invincibles?
That topic – whether Chelsea can match the accomplishment of the 2003-04 Arsenal side that went undefeated for an entire league season – has started to bubble recently, and will become louder the longer the Blues stay unblemished because, well, that's more exciting than debating which two flawed/underfinanced teams along with City will make next season's Champions League. That specific Chelsea discussion needs to be broken down into two subcategories: Can they do it, and will they want to try?
The first part sounds like a fairly obvious question on the surface. The Blues are already a plus-19 in goal difference and, as mentioned above, already have cleared many of their major away hurdles. They're really good on paper, and have been really good on the field. You may be surprised, though, at how relatively unlikely even their current run has been, let alone the odds of them reeling off more than two dozen more without a defeat.
Thanks to football-data.co.uk, I was able to go back through the betting lines that were available for Chelsea's first 12 matches, and by removing the betting sites' vigorishes, I was able to establish approximations for "real" win/lose/draw odds for each. As the chart below shows, Chelsea was "favored" not to lose in each of its 12 matches, but in four of them, they were calculated to have at least a 25 percent chance of tasting defeat.
When you string all of Chelsea's non-loss results together given these odds, the club being undefeated at this point of the season only was expected to happen around nine percent of the time. Simple translation: It's extremely difficult (and impressive) to have a 12-game unbeaten run, especially when four of them are among the more difficult away fixtures on the schedule.
On the surface, it's tempting to buy in. Chelsea's barely even been in danger of losing this season. The Blues have only trailed for a total of 37 minutes. Most of those came in a match with Swansea that Chelsea won 4-2, and the other few were in the season opener at Burnley, which Chelsea eventually won 3-1. But 26 matches is still a really, really long time to stay perfect, especially if you're juggling other competitions as well (see below), and the odds reflect that.
Currently, SkyBet is offering just 15:2 on Chelsea going unbeaten in the Premier League this season. Of course, bookmakers aren't in business to provide you with cost-free prop bets, so the "real" odds are significantly lower than that. This is probably a one in 10 proposition, at best.
The straight odds are complicated by whether it's in Chelsea's best interest to go for an unbeaten season. Arsenal's path to glory 11 seasons ago was aided a bit by semifinal exits in both domestic cups (so no cup final to prioritize over a league match) and a quarterfinal exit in the Champions League (which saved the Gunners up to three more high-pressure matches that would have required their first-choice lineup).
Chelsea currently remains alive in the League Cup (where it faces an away fixture at solid Championship side Derby County on Dec. 16) and looks set to advance to the Champions League group stage, as well. The club's FA Cup run begins next month, as well. While domestic cups aren't the primary goal for Chelsea or its manager, it's hard to imagine them passing up the chance at a treble (or even an unthinkable quadruple, sweeping England and winning the European title).
As robust as Chelsea's squad is, the strain of playing all of these midweek matches in addition to the regular slate will have an effect after a while, and Jose Mourinho likely at some point will have to decide whether he wants to save his major stalwarts for a late Cup match instead of the league – especially if Chelsea's lead in the league is such that a loss doesn't endanger the club's title chances.
That said, the longer this goes on and the more realistic it becomes, you have to believe it will begin to pique Mourinho's ego. There are few things in the club world that Mourinho hasn't accomplished, but this is one of them. And knowing that sometimes-foil Arsene Wenger was at the helm of the Arsenal team that did it could provide the extra motivation to give it a go.
In a Premier League season that, to this point, has been more notable for the flaws of most of the major clubs, a perfect Chelsea is highly alluring. It remains highly improbable the Blues can pull this off, but to borrow from fellow London club Tottenham, to dare is to do. It would be fun to see this run continue a while longer, and then see exactly what Mourinho wants to do about it.