A 2-0 win over Porto, indicative of classic Jose Mourinho rather than current Mourinho, took Chelsea to the top of their Champions League group and to the knock-out stages with the confidence they lack in the Premier League right now. A glaring omission from the action was the player who led the league for assists in last season’s march to the title, a player whom Mourinho suggested could skipper Chelsea soon after John ‘Captain Leader Legend’ Terry retires – No. 4 Francesc Fàbregas. Brazilian dynamo Ramires was deployed in his stead and Nemanja Matic suddenly looked like the holding midfielder who consistently won the ball back for his team last season.
While it has to be accepted that this Porto team does not have the pace of most Premier League clubs to make Terry look his actual age, and therefore did make Chelsea look better than they actually are, Chelsea’s defending of spaces improved considerably with Zouma, Matic and Ramires running around creating triangle roadblocks for Porto’s attacking four.The blistering pace on the counter Chelsea has at their disposal was only betrayed by some penalty-box hesitance. Porto had lost just once in 24 games in all competitions coming into the match and Chelsea had lost 8 games in the league alone since August but it appeared to be the other way around at Stamford Bridge.
Chelsea played in a 4-2-3-1 which they used through most of last season and since Ramires for Fàbregas is the only change, it’s interesting to look at how it changed team dynamics so much. Ramires provides direct box-to-box running while Fàbregas is a quarterback pinging balls to forward players in space in the right-side of midfield while Matic cleans up beside them. Very bluntly, this should mean Chelsea attacks better when Fàbregas plays and defends better when Ramires plays. However, while the latter is mostly true the former has ceased to be mostly because Fabregas’ short-passing seems to have dropped below 80 in FIFA16. The lack of defensive cover when Fàbregas tries to get forward but loses the ball also means that Eden Hazard and Willian have to drop back to help more often than not, which means Diego Costa has to use his lethal mix of thuggery and cunning on his own hoping Fàbregas finds him. So, when Costa’s goals have dried up it is not too far-fetched to speculate it is partly Fàbregas’ fault.
The ability of Cesc Fàbregas, Gunners captain at 17, has never been in doubt but the consistency over a season has never really been tested after his first couple of seasons with Arsenal due to injury and a World Cup-winning midfield relegating him to the bench at Barcelona. Even in his best career season, his first Chelsea season, he was quick off the mark to get to 12 league assists before Christmas before settling at 17 for the season. It would seem as if he sold his game to the Devil, who in turn seems to have sold it to Mesut Özil, since then. While Özil plays as a No.10 behind the striker, the job description while their team is attacking is the same – orchestrate the movement of the quicker players around you to create space and attack the goal. Fàbregas starts from a deeper position because he also has to help out in defense and plays more long balls. In the few games he did play further up as a No.10, his touches have let him down at crucial points.
Cesc still has an eye for the pass but his technique seems to be declining, possibly due to fatigue. Fàbregas covered the most ground of all Chelsea players last season, a solid 11 km average per 90 minutes, meaning he was involved in both ends of the pitch as fast as he could run. Chelsea as a team, with the notable exceptions of Willian and Cesar Azpilicueta, have been sluggish this season in their running and Cesc is especially representative of this. Too often, Cesc prefers to lug the ball long and rest deep instead of driving forward to provide more options against defenses that mark tight. While Ramires’ binary finishing style switches between “screamer”and “tear your hair out”, this is exactly what he has done when played this season to encourage the midfield three in front of him to try myriad approach play.
It should be suspected that Mourinho understands this as much and, in the wake of Chelsea’s worst start to a campaign in 37 years, would not be too hesitant about dropping last season’s lynchpin so that the team can string together some form. This might help Cesc to rest a bit and get back to his workrate from the beginning of last season. Of course, this does beg the question of whether Mourinho’s lack of rotation is to blame for this nightmare scenario at Stamford Bridge. However, if everyone else from that successful starting eleven can still play in a winning team there is some deliberation required as to how important of an attribute fitness is for a player to be considered world class. Mourinho has much respect for Fabregas as signalled by the fact that he has not dropped him too much this season but evidence from the Porto game indicates that Mourinho needs to stop having Cesc for a bit so that he can have better Cesc towards the middle of crunch festive season.