With the dust well and truly settled on Chelsea’s trophy-less 2013/14 season and transfer dealings already underway, here’s an in-depth review of what José Mourinho’s team did right, how they can improve for next season and who might be coming and going.
What went right
Chelsea began the season in whirlwind fashion, blowing away Hull in the first 25 minutes of their Premier League opener with a period of such blistering intensity that “Mourinho said he could rarely remember a better 25-minute period of attacking football”. Unfortunately, for the rest of that match, as was the case for the rest of the season, Chelsea were ultimately not able to sustain this exhilarating brand of football. Chelsea remained brilliant on the counter, but overall their third place finish in the Premier League and their run to the Champions League semi finals was built largely around an outstanding defence.
Chelsea had the meanest defence in the Premier League conceding just 27 goals, 10 less than champions Manchester City. To put it into further perspective, Chelsea conceded just four more goals than the champions of the Bundesliga (Bayern Munich) and Serie A (Juventus), and only one more than the champions of La Liga (Atletico Madrid). Unlike City, the German, Italian and Spanish champions also conceded the least goals against in their respective leagues.
In addition, Jeremy Wilson points out that following something of a watershed moment where Chelsea “conceded six goals in two games against Sunderland and Stoke at the start of December,” Chelsea kept 14 clean sheets in 23 Premier League matches. This included keeping clean sheets against Manchester City, Liverpool and Southampton at their own stadiums and against Arsenal, Everton and Tottenham at Stamford Bridge- all games which Chelsea won.
Barney Ronay, rebuking the catcalls of ‘anti-football’ directed at Mourinho’s use of defensive disciplines following Chelsea’s nil all draw against Atlético Madrid at the Vicente Calderón in their Champions League semi-final first leg and their 2-0 win over Liverpool at Anfield in the Premier League, pointed out another telling fact from this period:
“The fact remains Chelsea have failed to concede a goal in 180 minutes of football away from home in the past six days against the top teams in La Liga and the Premier League. In the process they have not only stopped three strikers with 90 goals this season between them from scoring, they have also limited Diego Costa, Luis Suárez and Daniel Sturridge to only one shot on target.”
Despite eventually being broken by a brilliant Atlético side in their Champions League return leg, for these feats (and others throughout the season) Mourinho and Chelsea fans can give a huge thank you to the exceptionally consistent back four of Branislav Ivanović, a vintage John Terry (Mourinho said he would aim to get Terry back to his best at the start of the season), captain in grooming Gary Cahill and Chelsea’s players’ player of the year César Azpilicueta.
That Azpilicueta won his award playing out of position at left back (while also relegating Ashley Cole to the bench) sums up his contribution, a model of consistency whose constant efforts were almost tangible to those watching. Furthermore, David Luiz, Ashley Cole and Tomáš Kalas all put in a shift when required, Luiz particularly monstrous in midfield in the Champions League knock out rounds and some big Premier League wins.
Despite not always being aesthetically pleasing and criticised by many who watched or came off second best against some of Chelsea’s less subtle nullifying tactics, praise must go to Mourinho in his first season back for making the unpopular call to put the team’s stylistic and philosophical evolution on hold to ensure the developing squad got the results that he was ultimately responsible for. Particularly insightful was his expression of concern about how precarious the Premier League was this season, with his decision to prioritise securing a top four finish at the cost of attractive football ultimately vindicated.
What’s more, with another year’s worth of experience for many of Chelsea’s developing stars, the club are now in a fantastic position to build a more confident assault on the Premier League next season and in the preseason can rediscover the bases they began building for a more expansive style and philosophy of play. As Mourinho has said in the press, he will admit Chelsea are contenders from day one of next season if the club signs well this summer.
Where Chelsea can improve
As mentioned above, Chelsea were able to get some great results through their defensive discipline and were a constant threat on the break. At their very best, Chelsea were well organised, hard-working and ruthless in attacking the space in behind the opposition, the best examples being their combination of containment and dynamic counter attacking at Manchester City in February and the hard midfield press employed in their 6-0 demolition of Arsenal in March,which allowed them to expose Arsenal’s high line and overload their defence.
However, while Chelsea’s record in the Premier League this season was outstanding against the rest of the top four – five wins, one draw, zero losses; their league record against the weaker teams ultimately cost them a chance at the title. Defeats to Stoke City, Aston Villa, Crystal Palace and Sunderland and draws with West Ham and Norwich at pivotal moments during the season are indicative of Chelsea’s current struggles with teams who sit deep and defend in numbers.
Furthermore, by the end of the season Chelsea themselves had reverted to the true definition of parking the bus in the big games and were absolutely limp in attack, the balance between defence and attack so one-sided that Chelsea’s attack was completely handicapped, relying on mistakes – Steven Gerrard’s slip; or simply unable to respond – as was the case against Atlético in the Champions League.
Taken in context with Chelsea’s inability to break ultra defensive teams down, Eden Hazard’s comments after the Atlético defeat that “Chelsea is not made to play football” points to the pressing need for Chelsea to develop a more proactive game to compliment their well-rounded counter attacking game.
To do so, Chelsea must better and more frequently utilise the width of the pitch in attack as well as moving the ball faster in the final third when facing low-lying teams with packed defences. Obviously, as has been drilled home since before the season even started, a world-class striker would also give Chelsea more cutting edge and would enable Mourinho to keep that Black & Decker purchase on hold.
Chelsea’s problem with width is initially created by Chelsea’s wide players liking to drift inside and/or Mourinho setting them up as inverted wingers to cut inside. This problem is exacerbated by the creation of width then falling to Chelsea’s full backs who are chosen primarily for their defensive qualities, rather than their ability on the overlap.
That said, at right back, Ivanović is happy to bomb forward when given the freedom but when he has been given space this season his distribution has been very poor – to the point that teams have often left him as the free man. In Chelsea’s frustrating nil all draws against West Ham (in which Chelsea had 63% possession) and Norwich (63% possession) and their 1-0 loss to Crystal Palace (56% possession), Ivanović attempted 16 crosses (five against West Ham and Norwich, six against Palace), all of which failed. Against West Ham and Norwich he also failed to play any crosses or passes from the byline.
Azpilicueta, on the other hand (and side), despite having the capability to be a very attacking full back, has been utilised by Mourinho as a stopper rather than a creator this season, magnified by the fact he is being played out of position and thus will not naturally stretch the game as he might on the right. Given his more defensive deployment, Azpilicueta is not often utilised as far forward as Ivanović in the final third as shown my his pass maps against Crystal Palace (0/1 successful crosses – not shown) and Aston Villa (1/1 successful crosses – not shown); although his crossing map against Sunderland shows that he is more than capable of getting into these areas.
With Chelsea not fully maximising the width of the pitch it becomes very difficult for them to stretch and get in behind teams who defend deep and in numbers. Too often, Chelsea narrow the play by coming through central avenues, increasing congestion and giving the opposition the easier task of only having to defending what’s in front of them. Against such teams Chelsea must improve at attacking from wide positions, stretching the defence laterally, thus creating more space to attack and making it more likely to create opportunities.
In addition to this, Chelsea must move the ball quicker and more intelligently when attacking packed defenses, like Manchester City and Barcelona at their best. This will also open up space. Chelsea have so often lack penetration when attacking this season (also due to their habit of attacking through congested central areas), and are overly reliant on Hazard to create moments of magic as he acknowledged after the Atlético loss by saying “often, I am asked to do it all by myself, and it’s not easy”.
By stretching the game through better use of width and quicker ball movement Chelsea will have more options in attack and with the quality of players in their squad will be far more unpredictable and harder to contain. Coupled with an upgraded strike force to more frequently finish off the good work of Chelsea’s creative players (Eto’o, Torres and Ba only managed 19 goals between them in the Premier League this season) and their excellent defensive record of holding onto leads, these improvements should see a more dynamic Chelsea in the 2014/15 season, with the ability to punish teams on the counter but also break down defensive minded opposition, giving them a far more realistic chance at challenging for the Premier League and Champions League cups.
Arrivals and Departures
Financial Fair Play is here and it will affect how Chelsea do business as they seek to abide by the rules, meaning Chelsea will consider selling at the right price if they wish to add high-profile players to their squad.
The reported transfer of David Luiz to PSG for somewhere between £40-50 million (PSG breaking their own transfer record for the world’s most expensive defender) represents this philosophy and follows on from the £37.1 million sale of Juan Mata to Manchester United (surpassing United’s club record of £30.75 million paid for Dimitar Berbatov in 2008), representing quite a profit on two players who were purchased for £21 million and £23.5 million respectively. While Luiz and Mata are both excellent players and were fan favourites, extracting record fees for players who were surplus to requirements and didn’t wholly fit in with Mourinho’s plans represents shrewd business on Chelsea’s part.
The departure of Luiz should see January signing Kurt Zouma brought back as understudy for Terry and Cahill, with Kalas also available and seemingly able based on his display at Anfield. The Telegraph and The Guardian have tentatively linked Chelsea with Porto’s Eliaquim Mangala and Real Madrid’s Raphaël Varane respectively, but with Ivanović also able to cover at center back a move seems unlikely unless Zouma is sent out on loan again – Inside Futbol reporting that according to France Football, Mourinho may send him back to Saint-Étienne.
Ashley Cole is expected to leave Chelsea after bidding farewell to fans via Twitter after he, Frank Lampard and Samuel Eto’o were included on the list of released players submitted to the Premier League.
With Cole likely gone, Chelsea will be in the market for a replacement to compete with the out of position Azpilicueta and the addition of a pure left back would certainly give Chelsea another dimension on that side. The Daily Mail has speculated that Chelsea may attempt to hijack Manchester United’s courting of Luke Shaw, while The Guardian says Chelsea are confident they can lure Atlético Madrid defender Felipe Luís to Stamford Bridge, despite the fact he initially ruled out a summer move after the Champions League final. It is unsure whether Ryan Bertrand – on loan at Aston Villa; will return to the club on a permanent basis, although Chelsea should be looking to bolster and balance the fullback department.
With uncertainty also surrounding the future of Chelsea legend Frank Lampard and John Obi Mikel out of favour and linked with a move to Inter Milan according to the London Evening Standard, Chelsea could be looking to boost their central midfield ranks, with Goal.com reporting Chelsea might move for a “marquee central midfielder to partner January signing Nemanja Matić next season”. Upon signing for Chelsea last summer, Marco Van Ginkel was touted as Frank Lampard’s long-term successor by The Independent, but a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament kept him out for most of the season and at 21, too much should not be asked of him.
Ramires has been Mourinho’s preferred partner for Matić, and while he is a dynamic box to box midfielder and effective on the break, he is not as visionary and skilled on the ball, meaning Chelsea can definitely strengthen in central midfield and should seriously consider a marquee signing to partner Matić. ESPN FC’s Transfer Talk has linked Chelsea with a surprising move for free agent (and former Blue) Tiago Mendes and while he would not fit the status of marquee signing, it would be a smart squad bolstering move similar to last summer’s signing of back-up goal keeper Mark Schwarzer. ESPN Chelsea blogger Phil Lythell makes sense of the possible move:
“The bottom line that Mourinho will be taking into account, should he be forced to choose due to injuries and suspensions, will be his team selection for a match that might decide the title or earn passage through the Champions League knockout stages” and it is therefore likely he will favour proven (in Tiago) over unproven “given the incessant pressure to win trophies at Chelsea Football Club”.
Mourinho will also have to make a call over the future of Tiago’s Chelsea owned, Atlético teammate Thibaut Courtois.
In three seasons at Atlético, Courtois, now 21, has won the UEFA Europa League (2011-12), the UEFA Super Cup (2012), the Copa del Rey (2012-13) and La Liga (2013-14), picking up two La Liga Zamora Trophies (2013, 2014), La Liga Goalkeeper of the Year (2103) and Best Belgian Player Abroad (2013); and will have played in a World Cup to go with this year’s Champions League final by the time he returns to Chelsea for pre-season – if he returns.
His emergence as one of the best goalkeepers in the world – ranking fourth in the 2013 International Federation of Football History and Statistics’s annual election of the world’s best goalkeeper, means Mourinho faces a tough decision between the young Belgian and the man who finished in third place – Chelsea legend and current number one Petr Čech. With ESPN FC reporting Courtois as saying it would be unhealthy for the two to be competing for the number one spot next season, Mourinho must make his decision with the future in mind, unless some sort of alternative arrangement can be reached.
Another young starlet who faces an uncertain future is Romelu Lukaku.
Lukaku scored 15 goals in the Premier League for Everton this season to go with the 17 he scored at West Brom the season before and has warmed up for the World Cup with a hat-trick in Belgium’s recent friendly against Luxembourg, yet Mourinho has remained surprisingly coy on such a talented player’s future. Possibly deemed to be too similar to likely arrival Diego Costa and with The Express speculating that a move for Mario Mandžukić may also be in the offing, the London Evening Standard suggests Lukaku may be offered a new contract before being loaned out again to inflate his transfer value, while The Independent reports Lukaku may even be sold if his value increases enough during the World Cup.
It would seem to fly in the face of logic not to bring Lukaku back for the new season as he has what Chelsea currently lack – goal scoring form in the Premier League, yet the same was said at the start of last season. Confusing right?
One player definately not coming back is free agent Eto’o, after labeling Mourinho a “fool” and “a puppet” in response to lighthearted but ill-advised off the record comments the Chelsea coach made about the validity of his striker’s official age reported by Canal Plus earlier in the season. Fernando Torres, despite his effort, is a massive burden on the pay role and Chelsea must consider finally offloading him. However, Stephen Schmidt writes that with a weekly wage of £175,000, suitor clubs will be extremely unlikely to offer anything remotely similar to a declining player and with two years to run on his Chelsea contract, the ball is well and truly in Torres’s court.
Aside from Costa, Mandžukić and Lukaku, The Daily Mail has thrown Ezequiel Lavezzi’s name in the ring and while he would offer a different kind of threat (that Chelsea should consider whether it be Lavezzi or someone else), his strike rate (9 goals and 0 assists in 32 French Ligue 1 games this season) is not great. Sky Sports reports that Demba Ba now expects to be at Chelsea next season, while on loan striker Patrick Bamford told The Guardian he had a discussion with Mourinho regarding his ambitions for next season, which makes it unclear but very interesting how Chelsea’s strike force will look come the new season. A complete clean out wouldn’t go stray, with two quality strikers coming in the minimum requirement.
The lofty expectations will be the same as always, but with the club the most stable it’s been in some time and an improving nucleus of seriously talented players, Chelsea have a far more realistic chance of challenging on all fronts this coming season. Throw in some key signings that Mourinho has spoken about and an already deep squad becomes scary in all departments. With Chelsea’s near perfect record against the rest of the top four in the Premier League this season, key to the Blues’ title tilt will be their ability to get the points against the teams who sit deep and defend in numbers by improving their proactive game (and making sure they have the right strikers to finish it all off).
The Champions League is naturally a more unpredictable proposition, made even more difficult by the fact top teams like Bayern Munich and champions Real Madrid will be looking to strengthen even further and are bound to improve in their second seasons under Pep Guardiola and Carlo Ancelotti – not to mention the quality of the rest of the field. However, considering how close Chelsea went on both fronts this season they will start the new campaign as one of the hot favourites for the Premier League with no reason to think they won’t go deep into the Champions League again. After all, Mourinho’s second seasons also tend to be pretty good.