Saturday, November 07, 2015

Should He Stay or Should He Go: Chelsea Lose Again

Chelsea lost yet again, 1-0 today at Stoke, even as they outplayed them for most of the game. It was their third league loss on the bounce, the first time that has happened in the Abramovich era. It was their seventh loss in 12 league games played, more than any Mourinho-led team has lost in an entire 38-game season. It left them stuck on 11 points, with a -7 goal difference, and in 16th in the league; the worst title defense in the Premier League era. And it furthered amplified the debate about whether the “special one” should be sacked for a second and, one assumes, final time by Chelsea. Worst of all, it puts them in a position where even making it to the Top 6 will be a real struggle, as only Aston Villa in 03/04 has ever come back from this few points at this point in the season to finish within the European places.

Mourinho, of course, was not even at the Stadium of Lights today, instead watching from a hotel room to satisfy his one-game stadium ban for comments he made about referees after an earlier loss, a habit for three seasons that is starting to really catch up with him this term. The good news for Chelsea is they created chances throughout the game, played with a resolve that has been missing for most of the first three months of the season, had Hazard playing at a high level again and created a number of good chances to score, though none were converted. They were clearly unlucky, but continue to show panic on the defensive end and paid for that lack of discipline.

Stoke counted on their new goalkeeper Butland, the replacement for that guy across from him (Begovich), saving a fine volley from distance by Ramires (’21), from Costa at an acute angle (40’) and a few other times throughout the game. Pedro hit the post on 77 minutes, after a fine curling shot from the edge of the box was just an inch too wide. In the 81st minute, some impressive passing from the Blues, including two backheels, set Hazard free on the left hand side of the box, but his shot was deflected just wide of the far post. Then in the 85th minute, Remy was set free on goal and appeared to be fouled by a charging Butland, though he skipped over the extended keeper and had the goal gaping before slipping and being unable to finish the chance. If he had just fallen down after the contact, Chelsea are lining up for a tying penalty kick with a chance to win it late. Instead they were held and another three points were gone.

The question that now gains steam is whether Mourinho makes it through the International Break. Abramovich knows that most fans want the iconic manager to stay, clear from the Mourinho masks many were wearing today and the chants they sung even in defeat. Whether the players share the same level of support, however, is unclear. Stories in the British rags last weekend claimed a player in the locker room said he would rather lose than win for Mourinho. Hazard has clearly been affected by negative comments, having the worst stretch of his career to date. The defense has been shambolic and the old leaders either past their prime or simply lacking the swagger and confidence in such clear evidence last season. And many have questioned the Portuguese manager’s tactics, claiming he has continued to play negative football, even against lesser opponents (though one could argue there are few clear ones at the moment).

The most troubling aspect of this collapse is it’s proximity to events at Madrid before he left three years ago. After leading Real to the title over Barcelona, bust-ups with several leaders in the locker room including club icon Iker Casillas, and with the media led to a chaotic season that ended with no silverware. Some continued to support Mourinho, but it seemed unlikely he would have been brought back even if the Chelsea job hadn’t opened up. To make that shift, in fact, he walked away from 17 million pounds in compensation. Mourinho was in constant battles in Spain, with the media, the referees and, most notably, with Barcelona coaches and players. He turned Real Madrid into a circus and it is somewhat telling that it was Ancelotti, and not him, that led the team to their 10th Champions League Final right after the “special one” had left. He left Porto after incredible success, left Chelsea last time after dominating the league in his first two seasons and then left Inter after the treble and before the almost inevitable decline began.

To be honest, without the incredible start to last season, one wonders if Mourinho would have even won the league, so mediocre was their second half of the season. Sure they won the League Cup, but then they were unceremoniously booted out of the Champions League by PSG and largely limped to the title as Costa and Fabergas’ form declined and they took a more defensive tact to winning or drawing games. It was still an impressive double and really an indicator of Mourinho’s genius – his ability to win games by any means necessary. Somehow, the summer brought a sea change in the attitude of the team, the form of its stars and the general confidence of the entire team. But what is behind it?
One could offer a narrative, though it is largely conjectural. To start, the siege mentality Mourinho often institutes can sometimes backfire, as players become aggrieved by every call that goes against them and forget to actually play football. That seemed to be the problem early, particularly for the truculent Costa, who was more interested in wrestling with oppositional centre backs than actually, you know, trying to get open and score goals. It worked against Arsenal, but has otherwise cost the team. Fabergas, on the other hand, appears to be playing a second half of the season in the first half of the season, further solidifying Barcelona’s comfort in letting the ex-Arsenal star leave for relatively cheaply. At the time, they pointed to the decline he suffers in productivity in the second half of seasons. But he has been on a hangover that has lasted most of the past year and one begins to wonder if playing so often so young hasn’t prematurely caught up with the boy wonder.

Fabergas also exemplifies the most surprising element of this Chelsea team. The best defensive unit in the league last season has already conceded 23 goals in 12 games. Last season they let in 32 in 38 (four better than the second best team … wait for it … Arsenal!). Fabergas has never been a great defensive player, but this season either have Chelsea stalwarts like Terry, Ivanovic and Matic. In fact, the entire team has seemed to too often lose their discipline, panicking whenever they are exposed on the counter. Ivanovic and Matic, in particular, have been downright terrible, after being among the best defensive players in the league last year. Mourinho teams are usually among the most disciplined, positionally solid and hard to break down as any in world football. Suddenly, they have all appeared to forget how to defend in unison, like a choir where every singer is at least two octaves off key.

The problems do not end on the defensive end, though, as the team has only scored 16 goals, worse than 8 teams and well below their average of almost 2 a game last season (73 in 38) where many games were shut down after taking the lead (or completely in games against top rivals). Part of that is down to the decline in productivity of Costa and Fabergas, the most breathtaking duo in the league at this time last year, but it also is down to the dramatic decline in Hazard’s performance (one week, he was given a rating of 2 by the Daily Mail). And after a great first game, Pedro has failed to translate his excellent record at Barcelona into the English game. To put it all in perspective, Costa, Ramires and Willian are tied for the team lead in league goals, at two a pop. Falcoa has chipped in one, along with six others, all more than the big, fat zero that Hazard has contributed.

So where does this all leave Mourinho? It appears that his antics and siege mentality have backfired this season and that the team has completely lost its confidence. This was not helped when he sat his captain out after a couple of early results went against them and when he did the same to Matic and Hazard. The first two appeared to react negatively, as did Hazard, who maybe not ironically had his best game of the season with Mourinho nowhere near the sideline. After the dramatic late winner from Willian’s free kick on Wednesday, many believed they could now turn things around. Instead they lost another game where they outplayed their opponent. Can they recover under Jose, or does Abramovich need to make a change to simply salvage the season, and maybe the careers of some players in rather dramatic free-fall? It is hard to say, though the availability of another ex-Chelsea boss, in the form of Ancelotti, who of course succeeded Mourinho at Real, could make the decision a little easier.

Whatever is in quick-draw-McGraw Abramovic’s head, one has to believe time is running out for Mourinho if results do not turn around in very short order.

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