Joe casts his eye over the final ten games that define Chelsea’s domestic season and asks the question: can we win the title this season?
The relatively muted atmosphere at Stamford Bridge was recently brought up by José Mourinho as a matter of concern. With this in mind the question of safe standing and how it enables a better atmosphere to be created has re-entered public debate. I would appreciate a few minutes of your time to answer the survey linked here to garner your thoughts on the subject matter.
When José Mourinho swaggered back into the corridors of Stamford Bridge, declaring he was “home”, you knew something was going to happen. That something was always going to be spectacular. Yet, whether that something would be a positive or negative was difficult to determine. There were a plethora of questions surrounding Mourinho’s return. Some were sensible and some less so, but the fact the dichotomy existed framed the risk of his boom or bust reappointment perfectly.
The season has twisted and turned to the point where Chelsea now sit atop of the Premier League. Things have been more difficult than the wider public imagined – Mourinho’s reappointment was meant to signal an easy stroll to trophies. When our early season performances were below par everyone loved it. Cast your mind back to the incessant string of articles, with their sneering undertones, gleefully declaring that Mourinho had lost his spark. Media outlets were delighted that Mourinho 2.0 was failing.
Mourinho, for all his brilliance, was not going to be a panacea for two years of woeful domestic form. Poor management had been a prevalent issue, but the squad itself was hugely unbalanced. Nevertheless, as the season progressed and Mourinho grew familiar with his team performances tangibly improved.
It is clear to the majority of Chelsea fans that we are still very much a work in progress. Still lacking in certain areas, the squad can do with further investment this summer. The obvious position of weakness remains up top. As well as a number one striker, we could do with adding another player capable of scoring goals in the Premier League. Loïc Rémy would be a nice steal, added to Romelu Lukaku and one of Diego Costa or Edinson Cavani would see a perfect blend of talent and a strike force capable of competing with anything in the league.
While that is a significant weakness my personal take is that we are lacking one truly outstanding central midfielder. If Obi Mikel stays then we are covered for holding midfielders with the arrival of the imposing Nemanja Matić. However, it is the technical box-to-box midfielder role that Chelsea lack any real quality. Ramires is a useful player, particularly in matches where he can counterattack, but watching him attempt to dictate play against sides intent on sitting deep is painful. David Luiz could be developed in time as a more technical imposing midfield figure, but my preference would be to seek out a natural fit for this system. Someone capable of dictating the game with incisive passing and creative quality.
A left-back is almost certainly on the agenda this summer and this should free César Azpilicueta to resume his role as our first choice right back. Playing someone athletic who can consistently overlap with a capable end product would further transform Eden Hazard. Defenders know Hazard cuts inside frequently and Azpilicueta is likely to do the same if he runs past Hazard. Knowing that Hazard has a pacey left-footed attacking option bombing past him will mean less double teams and hopefully more space. It changes how you attempt to negate Hazard entirely. If you push him infield you now have to deal with the attacking threat outside.
Looking towards the future makes for extremely positive reading. I truly believe the club see what Mourinho is building and will back him heavily if required in the summer. Nevertheless, Mourinho’s long-term project has a more imminent question to answer. Can his squad deliver the league title this season? It is easy to get lost in thought, envisioning the results if we had x, y or z playing up front or in midfield. It is even easier to imagine “how good we will be next season”. How about this season? What about delivering a league title at the first attempt?
Mourinho is building a potentially phenomenal team. Unquestionably it has not been a smooth process and the minimisation and subsequent sale of Juan Mata still hurts. Yet, we look a far more cohesive unit and Eden Hazard’s emergence from Juan Mata’s shadow is spearheading the team to an actual title challenge. Would this be Mourinho’s finest achievement? I would argue so. To win a league title without a top class striker is rare in the modern era. Mourinho’s concept of the team should therefore be lauded and the fact we have goals from all over the pitch (even Mikel!) is testament to José’s ideology.
I would still currently tip the title in the favour of Manchester City. City’s strength in depth and ability to score goals from all over is unparalleled. However, their fixture congestion and the pressure of hopefully being 9 points behind us when they next play could be telling. Arsenal look likely to go through their annual capitulation at any moment. I struggle to comprehend the mentality of their fans who continually buy into this “new era”. It happens like clockwork. The league is not decided in December, January of February: when will they learn?
I have not bought into the Liverpool revival. Many people will look at the Suárez and Sturridge combination and consider them a potent threat; however, I look at how ridiculously poor they are defensively. Southampton should have been out of sight at the weekend before Liverpool scored their decisive second. Adam Lallana ran rings around Steven Gerrard and no one is convincing me that Jordan Henderson is anything more than James Milner Mk. II. I do not like making predictions, but I am fairly confident they will not win the league. Can you imagine the media reaction if they did? It does not bear contemplation.
Where does this leave Chelsea? We have three obviously tough fixtures left: Tottenham, Arsenal and Liverpool. Seven points must be the minimum we take from these games. If we manage to take seven points then we position ourselves fantastically well for a charge at the title. The problem lies in the remaining fixtures. We have struggled against the “lesser” sides this season, particularly when Ramires is asked to breakdown a stubborn side with his distribution. Our attacking trio are suffocated and Oscar’s dip in form has not helped matters. How we fare against these teams will determine whether we have a chance at winning the title. We desperately need a refreshed Oscar to spark into life again – in a way our title challenge might depend on our Brazilian contingent.
Can we do it? We are not in a position where things are in our hands and I would probably park any thoughts about winning the league for another few games. My main hope is that fixture congestion prompts a couple of mediocre performances from City and they start to drop points here and there. It would be great to see them lose ground with their three games in hand and even a draw would give us some breathing space. Arsenal will remain a danger, but their run of fixtures should at the very least yield a string of draws. Liverpool will be in contention so long as their “score more” style of play remains intact – but I question the longevity of Rodgers’ tactics.
José does need to begin rotating his squad more often. We are entering the stage in a season where games come thick and fast. Moreover, the FA are still reluctant to schedule games around European involvement and give competing teams a realistic chance of recovery. With that in mind there needs to be more trust placed in the wider squad.
Oscar has looked tired in recent weeks and there are several players who can operate as a number ten to enable a rest. Likewise, Ivanović or Azpilicueta should be rotated with Cole more frequently to allow Mourinho’s first choice full-backs to be as fresh as possible. Salah may need some time to adapt to the demands of the Premier League, but his pace and directness could allow Willian a breather. Schürrle’s hopeful resurgence against Fulham could hint at an important role during the conclusion of the season.
This may well come down to who simply wants it more. One of Mourinho’s greatest traits, and one that frequently infuriates opposition fans, is his ability to conjure a victory from a flat performance. Mourinho may publicly say that we are a little horse and next season is when we will challenge for honours. My guess is that privately his thoughts are likely to be far more concerned about winning something this season and given that we are presently top of the league he will be challenging his players to remain there.
“Expect the unexpected” should be the tagline for this Premier League season. There will undoubtedly be more twists and turns as the final ten league games come to pass. We may or may not be able to see this home, but we need to remain united and behind the players while they are playing. Mourinho has questioned the atmosphere at the Bridge and rightfully so. Regardless of the many reasons why things have turned south we have an opportunity to inject some energy into the players for the remaining fixtures.
The crowd certainly can lift things and there have been several cases of a vociferous atmosphere at Stamford Bridge this season. More of a vocal effort against the lesser sides is now required. Instead of being tense and letting that translate to the pitch, everyone inside Stamford Bridge need to do everything possible to push the team on. The final few moments in Everton were loud around the Matthew Harding end and certainly gave the players that little bit of impetus and energy.
We are entering territory that the club excel in historically and as an entity. We thrive during adversity, often excelling where other teams will crumble. As long as John Terry is playing he will not allow the focus of those around him to drop. His leadership will be crucial to finishing the season as Champions. The drive and passion of David Luiz should be harnessed more often in midfield by Mourinho, as we have seen against City and Liverpool what a destructive and positive influence he can have on a game. Eden Hazard needs to stand up and categorically stamp his ability on these next ten games and cement his position as a world class talent.
This is a defining period for a young crop of Chelsea players who have not been here before. While finishing second should not be deemed a failure, the confidence winning the title will install amongst the squad is colossal.
Can it happen? Certainly. Will it happen? Who knows, but it is going to be exciting finding out.