Preseason is over and Chelsea now looks forward to the 2013/2014 season opener against Hull City at Stamford Bridge. For many fans, this season has been one of many surpises. The biggest of all would definitely be the return of “The Special One”, Jose Mourinho.
While many expected the same confidence and swagger that endeared Mourinho to players and fans during his first stint at Chelsea, Mourinho’s return marked a distinct change in the Portuguese’s demeanour. Proclaiming himself as “The Happy One” instead, Mourinho looked a more humble yet weathered individual. Obviously, years spent at Inter Milan and a tumulus period at Real Madrid changed him. However, one thing was for certain, Mourinho was brought back to bring Chelsea back to their former heights.
A brief look at the current Chelsea team would present marked differences from Mourinho’s team in 2004. Gone were experienced stalwarts, big names and expensive flops which were now replaced by a backbone of young yet precocious talents. Although stars from his trophy laden first stint Frank Lampard and John Terry remained, Mourinho is faced with managing the best young team in the country.
With the entry of new talent such as Andre Schurrle and Marco Van Ginkel, Chelsea and Mourinho have perhaps addressed long standing problems in terms of playing positions as well as squad depth. The only thing left was to get all these distinct flavours to blend together well during preseason and blend them together he did. It is no secret that Chelsea’s preseason (barring the loss to Real Madrid) had been largely successful. It is also in preseason where the key improvements and weaknesses of the squad have come to light.
Tactics: The midfield battle
Mourinho stormed to back to back premier league titles by utilising a rigid 4-3-3 system that leveraged on fast wingers to catch oppositions off guard on the counter attack. This system was maintained by a strong defensive line and screened by Claude Makelele, one of the best defensive midfielders in the game. It is obvious that the key component of the strategy involves a dynamic midfield with excellent wingers. This season, Mourinho looks set to tweak upon that formula with his set of players to deliver the same results.
While wingers Arjen Robben and Damien Duff have left, their loss have been stemmed by the arrival of newer and arguably more diverse players in the form of Eden Hazard, Andre Schurrle and Victor Moses. These 3 players are not the only out and out wingers in the squad, as Oscar and Ramires have also been given an extended run on the flanks.
Throughout preseason, the system of a rotating triumvirate started by Di Matteo last season seems to have been retained by Mourinho, albeit with a twist. In the system used by Di Matteo, ball playing creative midfielders are given freedom to utilize the ball and move around the final third unencumbered. However, Mourinho has clearly recognised the defensive fragilities of the system and the effect it has on the team’s striker; where ball playing midfielders restrict space for strikers to utilize. Hence it was important for Mourinho to find the right kind of player combinations to draw the best out of his strikers.
So far, we have mostly seen Eden Hazard and Andre Schurrle compete for spots on the left flank, while Oscar or Victor Moses compete for chances on the right flank. The reason behind such a grouping is because both sets of players offer ample coverage in both positions and remain malleable to perform well against any opposition that they might face in the season ahead.
By starting Schurrle and Moses together, Mourinho shows clear signs of utilizing more out and out wingers to create chances, much like Arjen Robben and Damien Duff in the past. Both wingers are comfortable cutting in to shoot, although Moses has shown himself to be more of a provider than a goal getter unlike Andre Schurrle.
Eden Hazard however, looks most likely the favourite to start on the left hand side given his ability to give Mourinho the best of both worlds. During preseason, his understanding with compatriot Kevin De Bruyne produced outstanding link up plays and goals. Most importantly, his two footedness, vision and ability to score make him a better-rounded winger who can play to the lines as well as come in and create through the center. It is clear that Mourinho has high hopes for Eden Hazard, with the Belgian evidently taking more chances and given more freedom to impose himself on the ball compared to the other players.
Unfortunately, the only downside to this new system would be the displacement of Oscar from the main team. Oscar plays best through the center, a position that is heavily contested by Juan Mata and Kevin De Bruyne. Shifting him out of the right is a move that limits his influence on play. While Oscar is young and has the pace to play as a right winger, he has shown himself to be less effective when compared to Victor Moses. Seeing how Mourinho works the Brazilian into the team will be interesting.
In center midfield, Mourinho has shown a tendency to use three players. While the shape may look like a 4-2-3-1, it is in fact 4-3-3 that contains a double pivot of center midfielders with a slightly advanced player in front of them. This highlights a move away from a favoured one man screen which Mourinho used to favour in his first stint.
With Makelele, Mourinho had a player who could singlehandedly break down plays and create from deep. However, the club lacks a capable replacement for Makelele and hence Mourinho has adapted to this by using a more flexible and dynamic pivot of box to box midfielders (much like the Brazil National team pivot of Paulinho and Gustavo).
In this setting, Ramires looks most certain to be the indispensible player in this midfield while Marco Van Ginkel, Michael Essien and John Obi Mikel compete to be his partner. Upon further examination, these 3 players have many qualities that offer a wide range of dimensions to the Chelsea midfield when paired with Ramires.
Essien looks the most capable defensively and that gives Ramires the opportunity to bomb forward using his immense pace, much like last season. However, it is to be noted that the “Bison”(Essien) is also just as capable moving forward as a Box to Box midfielder. With such dynamic qualities between the two, it is likely that we see Ramires and Essien paired together in important games. Meanwhile, Mikel remains the most viable option in games that require a more defensive focus while Van Ginkel is an interesting alternative given his abilities being a cross between Mikel and Ramires. With Michael Essien ageing and injury prone, expect Van Ginkel to fill in from time to time.
In attacking midfield, Juan Mata, the club’s best performer for last season faces strong competition in a position that was rarely contested when he first arrived at the club. As it stands, Kevin De Bruyne and interestingly Frank Lampard, represent his closest competitors as creative outlets. It is the move of Frank Lampard further upfield that draws more attention given the veteran’s deployment in defensive midfield over the past few years.
From preseason, it is clear that Mourinho intends for the Chelsea all-time top scorer to ply perhaps his last season as the sides creative fulcrum and goal threat. While Lampard’s age and relative decrease in mobility make a strong case against his new position, it could be said that Jose Mourinho looks to utilize more of the Englishman’s underated passing ability and intelligent movement to fashion out chances for the team. Furthermore, Lampard’s ability to shoot from distance also offers new outlets for goals (evident from his well taken goal against Roma in preseason).
On the flipside, Kevin De Bruyne enters the team as a dark horse. A fantastic passer of the ball, De Bruyne’s qualities include an innate understanding with fellow teammates Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku. With the two featuring more in Mourinho’s plans, it is highly likely that he will tap on De Bruyne’s creativity and understanding to bring the best out of his Belgian contingent. Kevin De Bruyne is also a great reader of the game and has a knack for scoring exquisite goals.
The Key Player
While many can expect Juan Mata to continue his fine form for Chelsea, an increase in depth and talent of players in his position (such as Kevin De Bruyne) could see the Spaniard make lesser appearances this term.
In preseason, Mourinho has shown a preference towards using Chelsea’s talented Belgian contingent and that makes Eden Hazard a more likely choice to be the key man for Chelsea this season. Like Cristiano Ronaldo and Real Madrid, Eden Hazard has been given the freedom to express himself in attack. His sterling performances from the left flank in preseason have shown that the manager’s faith in the Belgian has not been misplaced.
At his best, Eden Hazard is fast, skilful and dangerous on the break. He creates, scores goals and is consistent as shown from last season. Where he, alongside Juan Mata, were the leading lights in a somewhat lacklustre campaign.
However, the Belgian star was more of a provider than a scorer of goals last season. This season, with Mourinho’s faith, he has to increase his tally of goals or risk being a liability rather than an asset to the team.
The Dark Horse
Victor Moses flirted through the radar of fans and a media during his move from Wigan a year ago. While fans of the club were familiar with his mazy dribbling and direct running from the right flanks, it was the general consensus that the Nigerian would face a difficult task of making a mark in the first team. However, Moses proved his critics wrong by turning in impressive performances for the club.
Often recognised as the only out and out winger in the squad last season, Moses offered width and creativity from the flanks which endeared him especially to Rafa Benitez, although a loss of form in the later part of the season cost him a regular berth in the squad.
In preseason however, the contributions of Victor Moses have yet again become apparent to all. Mourinho has even spoken fondly of the Nigerian’s hardworking and selfless qualities. In short, Moses is the sort of Winger that Mourinho likesand that could see him pipe Oscar to a regular starting place in the first team, given that he improves on his assists and goal count as well.
A winning mentality?
A hallmark of Mourinho teams would arguably be an indomitable spirit and huge levels of discipline to adhere to tough game plans. Inter Milan’s treble run and Chelsea’s dominance in the premier league were perhaps the best examples of the Portuguese’s ability to churn incredible results even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
However, it could be argued that the same spirit of invincibility that kept Chelsea unbeaten at Stamford Bridge throughout Mourinho’s first stint in the premier league is still missing from this current team. After all, the team is young and still inexperienced.
Aside from Frank Lampard, Peter Cech and John Terry, most of the team’s core are players who have yet to reach their prime and look fragile in big games. This was shown during Chelsea’s defeat at the hands of Real Madrid in preseason, where an arguably more experienced and confident side led by the marauding Ronaldo showed Chelsea what they lacked.
With all the talent in the Chelsea squad, Mourinho has to build a strong winning mentality within the squad for them to grind out crucial points against tougher teams. This is the key factor that could make or break their season.
The huge misses this season
Much has been made about Chelsea’s new youth system. On one hand, smart investments such as Romelu Lukaku and Ryan Betrand have successfully stepped up into the first team. On the other hand, some talented members of the reserves continue to face uncertain prospects of breaking into the first team.
While the loss of Wallace and Lucas Piazon is somewhat lamentable, one of the biggest misses would be Josh Mceachran, a player once touted as Lampard’s perfect replacement. It is surprising how Chelsea have continually failed to look within their youth system to find potential solutions for their midfield crisis which has plagued them for the better part of the last 2 years.
In Mceachran, Chelsea has a player who is adept at creating chances and controlling the midfield. While he has performed poorly in a defensive midfield role under Ancelotti, his ability to play any of of the 3 midfield attacking outlets makes him at the least, a suitable back up to Juan Mata. Instead, he was shipped out on loan for yet another season to Middlesbrough last season. If not of Mata’s consistency and class last season, his absence would have been a huge loss to the team in need of depth.
During his loan, Josh performed amicably, often known for his strong ball retention skills and vision to start attacking moves. For his efforts, he won the Middlesbrough young player of the season award. It was expected that Mourinho, a long-time admirer of Josh seemed mostly likely to offer Mceachran a chance to prove his worth to the club. Yet he was missing from all of the preseason action.
Now as Mceachran awaits decisions on yet another loan move, it pains Chelsea fans that they have to wait yet another year before they can finally see a home grown Englishman break into the first team.
Chelsea may have bought well, but they have yet again failed to make the best of the talents right under their noses.
Predictions and final musings
With the clubs gearing up for the new season, there has never been a more exciting season for Chelsea football club. As it stands, almost 6 teams could challenge for the premiership crown.
All of their close competitors have bought well. Manchester City look adequately stocked with talented and seasoned striking talents while Tottenham are a dangerous dark horse with their own Belgian contingent of Nacer Chadli, Jan Vertongen and Moussa Dembele. Manchester United are playing their season fergieless while Arsenal look set to challenge for trophies with a similarly talented young squad.
How will Chelsea fare in the new season? Personally, I feel that Chelsea stands a strong chance of winning 1st place.