Two matches in and the champions are wheezing. This has already been Chelsea’s worst start since 1998, well before Roman Abramovich’s purchase of the club. The defeat at Manchester City on Sunday left them five points adrift of last season’s runners-up in the fledgling Premier League table. It is too early to talk of crisis, with both Branislav Ivanovic and Diego Costa having publicly pushed for improvement rather than panic, but there are reasons why Chelsea have failed to find their early season sparkle.
1) Pre-season Form
The bulk of Chelsea’s first-team had only returned for training on 14 July, only 24 hours before the squad departed for Montreal. There were three games in the United States, with those personnel who had been involved in the Copa América joining the party after the game against New York Red Bulls. From that tour, with its travelling to and from Canada on the days of the game, Chelsea returned to England with only two full days to prepare for the Community Shield. If that lethargic performance owed a little to jet lag then another friendly, against Fiorentina at Stamford Bridge sandwiched in midweek before the start of the title defence, gave the programme a haphazard look.
The whole buildup felt frantic, and a far cry from the relaxed – almost idyllic – schedule put in place for a 26-man squad at their camp at Waldarena in Velden, Austria when the serious, back-breaking preparations began a year ago. José Mourinho had revealed his frustration on that front in his media briefing last Friday. “We were tired towards the end of last season and the team had problems,” he said . “We went for a slower start – a short pre-season, with only three matches before the Community Shield – and we knew that the start is not going to be the same kind of start that we had last year.”
2) Lack of transfer activity
They have also been unable to replicate the early and impressively efficient transfer dealings that marked last summer’s approach. In 2014, Diego Costa and Filipe Luís had virtually been secured before the end of the campaign, while moves were already afoot to lure Cesc Fàbregas back to the Premier League on the quiet. Those players, and Thibaut Courtois, were in place for the start of the season and the only other major addition, Loïc Rémy, was recruited from Queens Park Rangers nearer the deadline once Fernando Torres had been quietly ushered off the wage bill, initially to Milan.
Yet fast forward to the present and Chelsea have not actually added any competition for places a year on. Radamel Falcao has replaced Didier Drogba, Asmir Begovic has come in for Petr Cech, and Baba Rahman for Filipe Luís. Victor Moses and Bertrand Traoré are back at the club but have yet to benefit from playing in the Premier League, while Tomas Kalas, Isaiah Brown and Dominic Solanke have joined the huge ranks of loanees rather than challenging for senior places. Maybe Uefa’s apparent relaxation of financial fair play regulations, to which Chelsea were steadfastly applying, caught them on the hop and confused the overall policy. Clearly Antoine Griezmann, Koke and Pedro have not been as easy to prise away from their various Spanish clubs, while Everton have steadfastedly resisted advances for John Stones.
“You can say: ‘Why didn’t we do our business before the start of the pre-season?’ like we did last year but it’s not because we don’t want to, it’s because it’s not possible,” Mourinho said. “So, in this moment, we are a bit limited but I have no doubt the club will give the squad a couple more players.”
There is, indeed, still time to add to the squad though, at present, the sense is Chelsea have allowed their rivals to catch up unchallenged.
Maybe the disappointing Juan Cuadradro can be moved on, back to Italy, and a replacement secured to ease the burden on Eden Hazard and Diego Costa up front. Perhaps Stones can still be lured from Goodison Park. The decision to remove John Terry from the fray at the Etihad Stadium has been interpreted, rightly or wrongly, as Mourinho urging Abramovich to open the chequebook. The manager certainly aspires to bring in two more faces before the closure of the window.
3) Ageing Players
Terry’s departure at the interval at City represented the first time he had been replaced in 177 games under Mourinho, the manager explaining – plausibly – that Kurt Zouma’s pace would be more beneficial after the interval when the hosts could play at ease on the counter-attack. Yet the idea that the captain’s withdrawal was also designed to remind the hierarchy of the need for reinforcements is just as credible. It was always going to hog the limelight.
Terry played every minute of every league game last season. The backline – the entire team – relied on him, and he arguably enjoyed one of the most impressive campaigns of his career, even returning to Cobham, albeit after a promotional tour of China, to start his pre-season preparations before the bulk of the squad. Yet this is a player who turns 35 later this year, a veteran on whom this team cannot necessarily look to every week to inspire.
The same might apply to Ivanovic, who made 49 appearances last season, almost all of which were marked with barnstorming, lung-bursting charges down the right flank from full-back. The Serb provides as much forward propulsion and width as anyone in this Chelsea team but he is 31. He may be a freak of nature, a player whose industry and drive are remarkable, but can he be expected to sustain it every week for another campaign? There were signs towards the end of last term that he was tiring. His start this season has been distinctly, and uncharacteristically, unimpressive with Jefferson Montero having scorched him on the opening weekend.
Neither case is particularly surprising. Age creeps up on everyone but the size of Chelsea’s senior squad, last season and this, places so much emphasis on senior figures such as Terry and Ivanovic maintaining form and fitness. Mourinho used fewer players in the Premier League than any other manager last season, apparently the result of the team starting so well and players, in effect, becoming un-droppable. But the result was many were shattered towards the end of the campaign and, even with a break of a month in the summer, still appear groggy even now.
4) Incorporating Fabregas
Suggesting that before last Christmas would have appeared lunacy. Fàbregas, in combination with Costa and Hazard, had illuminated Chelsea as he eased back into the Premier League with consummate ease. When he endured his dip in the spring one could point to niggling injuries or the volume of games. The hope was a summer’s rest would provoke a repeat of his blistering form. Instead, like those around him, he has only offered flashes of his best (most notably that exquisite pass through to Costa as the game fizzled out in Manchester).
Fàbregas’ quality is clear. He will rediscover his zest at some stage, probably sooner rather than later, and Chelsea will tick far more efficiently as an attacking force as soon as he does. Yet it is interesting to note Mourinho’s wariness to pair the Spaniard alongside Nemanja Matic – the deep-lying partnership through that spectacular start last year – in games against the stronger sides in the division. More often than not, Ramires is drafted in to add bite and energy, even discipline to a point, in that central role with Fàbregas thrust further up-field into something akin to the No. 10 position. Yet he rarely appears to influence quite so effectively these days in that more advanced role. It is as if he benefits from seeing the bigger picture from deep, picking out his passes from further downfield.
The Spain international could justifiably argue this team have not functioned quite as smoothly since that scintillating win at Swansea in January, and that he is only one of a number of players whose fizz has gone flat. Yet as a senior performer, a World Cup and two-times European Championship winner, the onus is on him to lift the squad. Hazard cannot be expected to do that alone.
5) Mourinho’s Mindset
Word is the manager has not been “The Happy One” over recent weeks, despite signing a four-year contract. The fact his father, José Sr, has been seriously ill for some time should be acknowledged. Those off the field issues, so often forgotten from the outside looking in, affect everyone and can clearly influence behaviour. In the day job, the frustrations at pre-season and recruitment will have been unnervingly omnipresent for some time.
To date his exasperation – aside from around Courtois’ dismissal against Swansea – has really manifested itself only in the treatment of the first-team doctor Eva Carneiro and the physio Jon Fearn, an outburst and decision to demote that has merely demonstrated the sense of dissatisfaction in the dugout. There has been no plausible explanation for the decision and it is not the first time Mourinho has shaken up the medical staff but it did expose the reality all is not well behind the scenes before the team made it obvious at City.
The Premier League season is not yet a fortnight old and this team have shown they can gather momentum and steamroller allcomers but it is safe to assume their defence was not supposed to start this way. They are already embroiled in an unanticipated game of catch-up.