Jose Mourinho has done nothing but play down the expectations of his Chelsea


Jose Mourinho has done nothing but play down the expectations of his Chelsea team when it comes to mounting a tangible challenge for the title. Even after the team beat Manchester City at the Etihad and more surprisingly did it with relative ease and without conceding he played down his teams chances. The former Madrid manager still maintained his stance, famously describing his team as a little horse that needs milk and to be taught how to jump but will be ready to race next season.
While some may not agree with Mourinho’s opinion, or may not even believe that he is actually of the opinion that Chelsea are not yet ready to challenge, its hard to disagree with the logic behind his claims. The fact of the matter is that Chelsea hired Mourinho on the back of two horrible seasons in the league. Its only sensible that fans not expect too much of him this season. A focus has been placed on the future by Chelsea. There is a need for balance and a philosophy to be instilled in the team before thoughts of making a title challenge can come to mind. The thing is though, apart from an apparent focus on the future, the reality of the present is that as things stand, Chelsea have an equal chance as anyone to win the league. They have a good squad and stand on top two points above Arsenal. Chelsea have also come up against the top four sides taking ten points in the process and having not been beaten. However, are there obvious weaknesses that are preventing Chelsea running away with the title?
A lack of quality up front
The problems Chelsea’s strikers have faced this season are very well documented. None of Fernando Torres, Demba Ba, or Samuel Eto’o have consistently performed at the level that is expected of a club of Chelsea’s stature. The fact that Chelsea are doing decently this season in the league without a consistent goal threat up front is a bit of a surprise and from another perspective, makes one think of how much better this Chelsea team can be if they can sign up a very good striker. The loan deal sending Romelu Lukaku out to Everton was something that came with a lot of criticism for Chelsea, some of which is justified. He just came off a very good season at West Bromwich Albion, and already showed enough to be a starter over Chelsea’ strikers at the time.
The problem with that premise is that the deal is looked at from only one perspective; the present. While we can accept that Lukaku’s first loan was a success, that success at Everton does not automatically translate to success at Chelsea. One cannot blame Chelsea for wanting to test him at a higher level before thrusting him into their first team. There is little to suggest that he will not come back a better player than he was after last season after this loan. Apart from the fact that he is a youngster, there are technical reason’s as to why Mourinho did not trust him this season. During Chelsea’s chase for Wayne Rooney, Mourinho pointed out that he wants a striker that is capable in tight spaces, has the technical ability to combine with the attacking midfielders, and is well capable of being a threat with his back to goal.
Mourinho noted that his strikers (at the time Torres, Ba and Lukaku) were only capable when there is space for them to run behind the defense. This explains a lot. For the likes of Torres and Ba its too late for them to polish their technical abilities and Chelsea cannot wither while Lukaku develops his so the best thing for him was a loan where he can improve this aspect of his play. Roberto Martinez and Everton are the perfect combination for him to hone his technical skills. While one can point to his goals compared to that of Chelsea’s current strikers, it is just indicative of the space Mourinho was talking about. More often than not, teams will look to be compact and deep, packing bodies in the final third of the pitch against Chelsea, and play mostly on the counter. That means that Chelsea’s attackers will more often than not, struggle for space to operate as such close control, technical ability, link up play and ability back to goal go from being a luxury to a necessity for Chelsea. This explains why Chelsea loaned out Lukaku in favour of Eto’o. While the Camerounian is way past his best he still posesses a certain degree of technical ability, reasonably better than that of Torres, Ba or Lukaku. At West Brom Lukaku had space to operate and the same can be said of Everton at the beginning of the season. Its more than a mere coincidence that his dip in form has come with the fact that more teams are seeing the need to be more vigilant about the amount of space Everton have in their final third as the season progressed. This loan will help Lukaku be a more complete player, he has all the tools to be more than the poacher he currently is. He  may have a target man’s body but he doesnt use those physical tools as well as he should (another topic, another day). The signing of Lacina Traore should also give him serious competition at the club which is good. Just a lack of a top striker is enough for Mourinho to be justified in saying that Chelsea can’t win the title, but there is another threat to their title push. Something that’s related to the striker problem but more general and maybe bigger.
Chelsea’s form versus the ‘lesser’ teams
This season, one of the most impressive things about Chelsea has been their general good form against the bigger teams that they have faced, they have only lost once in league matches against  Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester City (twice), Tottenham, Everton (twice), and Manchester United (twice).
Where Chelsea have looked really vulnerable though, is in the matches versus the smaller teams. Matches that they are expected to win. Chelsea, this season would have had a perfect record at Stamford Bridge had it not been for West Brom and West Ham visits (with Arsenal the only title contender yet to visit them). Apart from Everton who at their best can give any team in the Premier League a game, Chelsea’s only other losses this season came against Newcastle and Stoke. There was an indication that Chelsea would struggle against teams that try to close down the space between their lines in their third and not commit a lot of bodies in attack. Against Norwich at Carrow Road, Chelsea struggled to break down a sturdy Canaries defense pushing Mourinho to desperate measures (switching to a 3-man central defense with Hazard and Willian as wing backs), there was also a similar story at Stamford bridge when Cardiff came to visit.  If Chelsea do so well against the bigger teams, why do they struggle in some matches that they should be winning?
Why do Chelsea struggle versus ‘lesser’ teams?
The answer lies with space. Chelsea this season have been heavily dependent on the counter attack. A tactic that’s only consistently useful when the opponents set out to try to attack them. This explains why they do so well against the big teams but struggle a bit versus the minnows. Their play is centered upon waiting for their opponents to commit players forward and hit them on the break with speed on the counter. The problem with their tactics is that they only work when the opposition commit players in attack, leaving space behind or if the opposition defenders are easily moved out of position. The bigger sides will always want to attack Chelsea and will therefore leave space for them on the counter, so by extension Chelsea have more comfortable if not easier games versus the big sides.
But against a team that defends deep and compact, the team will always struggle to create clear chances. As there will be little space for Chelsea attacking midfielders to use their speed and for the strikers to get the ball in dangerous situations. This goes to explain why Mourinho is keen on a technical striker that can work good chances out of tight positions. Part of the problem is that Chelsea don’t have players in deep positions that can really split defences open. The likes of Matic, and Lampard are the ones closest to having the required technique, but the problem is them is that they are at their most creative during quick transitions, trying to pick out the perfect pass to an attacking outlet during a counter. Their ability to slowly break down deep defenses is limited. Ramires is a player that should be recieving the ball as an outlet during counters as his skillset is not really suited to that of a distributor. This means that apart from all the hard work Ramires is quite useless against deep defences as he has limited space to use his abilities to devastating effect. Mikel’s passing is more about ball retention than actually starting attacks, while him passing only sideways is only a myth, its obvious that he is not an option as a playmaker.
A lack of attacking full-backs
Another way Chelsea could have stretched teams is by using an attacking fullback. The problem with this for Chelsea is that the only fullback capable of providing the incisiveness they need against deep teams is the more defensive one on the left (Azpilicueta), while Ivanovic is allowed to attack. While Ivanovic provides, goals good running and an option to head down Cech’s goal kicks to start attacks, he lacks the technique to combine with the attackers in tight spaces and his crosses hardly cause trouble for the opponents. If you add a lack of a striker capable in tight spaces to a lack of technical fullbacks in attack and no playmaker from deep, it becomes apparent why team’s whose priority is to defend first versus Chelsea can take care of their attacking midfielders and the rest of the team would be clueless, and its in matches like this that Luiz gets desperate and tries to take matters into his own hands and then ends up making a costly error neglecting his main duties. Which leads most to think perhaps Luiz is the player Chelsea need to force the issue in midfield, he’s looked decent in the box to box role and its certainly an option worth looking at. Juan Mata’s ability against deep teams may have helped but we all know what happened. At the end of the day, teams whose first priority is stop Chelsea’s attackers easily frustrate them, but teams who come at Chelsea or the ones that think they can do both normally end up losing.
Its hard to take Mourinho’s comments as anything more than mind games. As the league table suggests that Chelsea are one of the biggest contenders for the title this season. But another truth is that Chelsea will play a whole lot more teams that will look to play like the likes of West Ham and West Brom played against them than the way City did. At this point in time, finding a way to break down tough defenses should be a priority for Chelsea this season.
They should enter matches with the aim of scoring as soon as possible and then make defensive subs. I say this because Mourinho’s starting teams in some of these games have been too cautious, he’d rather wait and see how the game pans out and then make changes, sometimes it works, other times its too late. Chelsea need a technically sound XI against the smaller teams, not a proactive one, which is why for me the likes of Ivanovic and Ramires are better served in the bigger games. I’d play Azpilicueta at right back, Cole on the left and one of Lampard or Luiz partnering Matic in midfield with Willian, Oscar and Hazard in front of them. This ensures that Chelsea’s threat is more spread out on the pitch not concentrated in one part of the pitch and easily fizzed out.
Perhaps Mourinho playing down Chelsea’s chances could be a way of recognizing the flaws of the team and promising to fix them at the end of the season therefore assuring that next season will certainly be better. As adding a world class striker and probably a central midfielder will probably see Chelsea turn favourites overnight. Its still early days though, and it remains to be seen if Chelsea can still win it like this, but if they don’t, the reason will not be far from not being able to break down tough, deep and compact defenses.

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