With four league games done, and a 21 million euro signing from Barcelona’s bench being the biggest player brought in, this season has been underwhelming for Chelsea and the club’s fans alike. Even though the mist of a league-cup double last season in dominant fashion may have blinded pundits and fans alike, it was perhaps inevitable that Chelsea would struggle in a highly improved league. Mid-table clubs like Crystal Palace, Swansea and Southampton have reached the levels of football Chelsea played last season, with a mix of shrewd transfers and a rediscovery of attacking football in England’s top flight.
The international break, a frustrating period for football fans showing token interest in their clubs’ players, has led to bored journalists speculating the future of Chelsea under Jose Mourinho, or the lack of thereof. Some journalists and pundits have already started voicing their opinions about Mourinho’s so-called “three year itch” in plural third person in a desperate attempt at credibility. But journalism is a tough field struggling to stay relevant in the age of the internet, and it’s better not to digress. The matter remains that Chelsea are nowhere near the quality Manchester City have shown this season, already racing to the top of the table, scoring the most goals and conceding none at all.
Branislav Ivanovic, promoted to vice-captain after proving himself to be indispensable over the last few seasons and the sad but inevitable transfer of Petr Cech to Arsenal, has arguably been the worst of Chelsea’s first team this season – competing with Cesc Fabregas for that undesirable sobriquet. It must baffle Mourinho and Branna himself how a player who was making barnstorming runs upfield in attack while tracking back to be a wall on the right side of defense, is now caught ballwatching instead of tracking or going into tackles more often than not. The common sense solution seems like switching Cesar Azpilicueta to the right and bringing the new Ghanaian left-back Baba Rahman into the team. But as with the best of us, sometimes Mourinho’s strengths are his biggest weaknesses. Mourinho’s management style is the anti-thesis of Rafael Benitez in the sense that he goes about creating a group of players that play day-in, day-out and these players are treated differently from others in the squad. Thus, while a Ruben Loftus-Cheek may get a few chances here and there, unless he follows Mourinho’s game-plan to the T, even if he scores a hat-trick, he will be dropped. While a player like Ivanovic, will be given a much greater leeway, because this is a player who has already demonstrated that he is mentally capable of playing in the manager’s system. Whether this is an unreasonable approach is up for discussion, but two Champions League titles with non-favorite teams and a league title in every league he’s managed in, heavily skews the debate.
The problem with Cesc Fabregas is a much more older one. Even in last season’s domination of the Barclays’ Premier League, the defensive load on Nemanja Matic when paired with Cesc in the defensive 2 in a 4-2-3-1 was massive. Cesc prefers to be a quarterback than a No.10, and that is understandable considering he is not one of the best finishers in the team. When your fullbacks are in form and are contributing to attack and tracking back, like Chelsea’s were last season, it is acceptable for a team to have one midfield enforcer and one quarterback pinging balls to forward players in space. But when your fullbacks get stranded in attack or are getting easily passed by pacey wingers like Ivanovic was by Jefferson Montero against Swansea, Raheem Sterling against City and Yannick Bolasie against Crystal Palace, then your quarterback has to do more off-the-ball running not just to collect balls but to win them. This is where Chelsea have been hit by a double-whammy, with Cesc and Branna both playing on the same side of the field and both of them showing rank incompetence in stopping the ball coming into the center from the wings at the same time.
The attack has toiled but Mourinho’s teams are built from the back. Without a solid backline, the attackers often have to track back to cover for their ineptitude and this results in not just fewer forwards upfield for the counterattack but fatigue when on the ball. The near invisibility of Hazard and the lonely struggles of Diego Costa against two centrebacks are a result of this. Pedro has shown signs of real quality especially in beating his man on the wing and will probably settle in just fine. Unless Willian’s shooting improves massively, Oscar at No.10 seems a no-brainer when he returns from injury with Willian as a rotation player capable of playing in any of the three behind the striker. Having watched Mourinho’s sides play for over a decade, we know that Mourinho doesn’t like changing his attack or his defense but if his team is losing, he will strengthen his defense first instead of going all-out Brendan Rodgers and trying to outscore the opponent.
Dropping Ivanovic or even moving him in as one of the centrebacks (we tend to forget that he was a stop-gap rightback who just proved himself too good to be dropped for a specialist) might be the easiest way to fix the defensive rut Chelsea are in, conceding most chances and shots at goal in the league while languishing in the company of Bournemouth, Aston Villa and Norwich in the middle of the table after a month of football. But Mourinho has always been man-manager more than strategist. Mourinho understands that tactics mean nothing if he doesn’t trust the players or the players don’t trust him and he trusts Ivanovic enough to promote him to vice-captain in Cech’s permanent absence at Chelsea. Baba Rahman was the best left-back in Germany for Augsburg last season and has shown great energy in both making runs and crosses in attacking and going into tackles covering his centreback in defense but he is still only 21 and Cesar Azpilicueta was the Premier League’s Team of the Year left-back last season. So, don’t be surprised if Mourinho continues with Ivanovic at right-back for a while more before he decides enough is enough. Maybe, a little bit of faith from the manager is all it takes for Branna to become the Serbian tank that football fans remember him to be.