Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Why Are Chelsea So Bad this Year?

There are no easy answers to why Chelsea have slumped to 9 defeats in their first 16 games of the season, after essentially the same squad won the title by eight points last season, but some of those problems were on clear display in their 2-1 loss to Leicester City yesterday. Here I will try to highlight some of those shortcomings and how they have elicited the worst title defense in Premier League history.

One must start with the manager and he appears to be culpable for some of the struggles this season. Mourinho wins trophies everywhere he goes, but he doesn’t seem to stay anywhere too long. After one of the most efficient summers in recent memory a year and a half ago, adding the striker (Diego Costa), creative midfielder (Fabergas) and keeper (Courtois), Chelsea essentially cruised to the title last season. That same team has gone in the opposite direction this year and it is hard to ignore the role Mourinho has played in seemingly undermining his own players. It started with the halftime benching of John Terry in the 3-0 loss to Manchester City. And then there were the benchings of Hazard, Ivanovic, Costa and a host of others. Actually, the troubles started even earlier, when Mourinho blamed his medical staff for dropped points when they came out to treat Hazard when he felt it was unnecessary. Playing a man down, they conceded the lead and settled for a draw. The fact the lead medic was a woman only added to the troubles and a lawsuit still looms. Some have argued his tendency to take all the credit when they win and none when they lose hasn’t helped matters, potentially costing him his first stay in Chelsea and certainly playing a role in his dismissal a year after winning the title with Real. In fact, the same charge of “betrayal” level in his post-match interview Monday was on display in Madrid as things unraveled. Other problems seem to revolve around undermining the confidence of players and, oddly, on some tactical decisions he has made this year. Costa, after a blistering start to football in England, has become more of a nuance than a deadly striker and Fabergas, never known for his defensive nous, is essentially playing his own game. He played a big role in the early results that gave Chelsea the crown, but has been below par for a year now, hurting the team through his inability to track back or fit seamlessly into the formation Mourinho is trying to play. Mourinho might also have placed too much faith in the continued solidity of Ivanovic and Terry, though that would have been hard for anyone to predict, and he did try to sign Stones. And that might be the final problem; a rather quiet summer by Chelsea standards that meant they had less flexibility than they might have had (Falcoa, for example, has been an abject failure and Pedro has been little better). At this pace, it would not be surprising to see Mourinho again looking for a job quite soon but he can’t play the game for his squad and the problems run much deeper than his man management and tactics.

Defensively, the anticipated drop in John Terry’s form has finally come to fruition. On the first goal of the game yesterday, it was clear that he was most to blame, failing to move into the appropriate defensive position and then failing to react quickly enough to Mahrez’s smart cross. Zouma could have cut in front of a charging Vardy, but it did seem that Terry was more to blame. In the past, finding a way through the well-organized Chelsea back line was like wading through a George Bush speech for a moment of brilliance (or even coherence), now it seems like child’s play. Ivanovic has been even worse and has directly contributed to their horrific defensive record with his inability to track runners, to pressure the ball or to stop shots and crosses in the box. He looks like a shell of his former self and would be on the bench if new signing Rahman hasn’t looked almost as bad himself. Ivanovic has been marginally better of late, but not good enough for a team trying to vie at the top, rather than the bottom, of the table. Even Azpilicueta looked quite average in this game, guilty of failing to close on Mahrez before the brilliant individual goal that made it 2-0. Zouma has been decent with his speed, though his positioning often leaves something to be desired. And just when we were ready to anoint Gary Cahill as the next great English Centre Back, his form has become erratic.

In the middle, the continued decline of Cesc Fabergas makes Barcelona look like geniuses and Chelsea like suckers who got half a season out of a player who appears to be going in the wrong direction with his form. He used to play well for the first half of seasons and then fade in the second half, but has been downright mediocre throughout all of 2015. Next to him, is the bizarre case of Matic, who was arguably the best defensive midfielder in the entire league last season but now seems completely lost. He failed to stop the Leicester counter on several occasions throughout the Monday evening encounter and that has been the nature of his game throughout most of the campaign. It’s even harder to understand what has happened to him than to Terry and Ivanovic, both of whom age might have finally caught up with. To be fair, having to play alongside Fabergas does him no favors and he certainly seems more comfortable when Ramires is next to him. The Brazilian, in fact, has played decently when in the team, but his range of passing was exposed throughout this encounter and continues to undermine his excellent runs toward the penalty area (and occasion goals). Oscar seems to perform well in Europe but has been much less successful in the league and his inability to influence games was clear on Monday. One wouldn’t be surprised to see him on the chopping block next summer.

In the front line, the decline of Hazard might be the most surprising of the entire maligned club. Last year he was the consensus player of the league and vaulted to many people’s top five in the world. In 16 league games this campaign, he has zero goals and two assists (on 22 shots) and one can add 6 games in other competitions where he only added one more assist. Many argue that Mourinho’s style has weighed on the Belgian’s mind and that he is so set on leaving he cannot properly motivate himself for games. That is hard to believe after last season, but something is wrong with a player that is still wanted by some of the top clubs in Europe, including Real. Diego Costa has also disappointed, with only 4 goals to show for 17 appearances in all comps, and a solitary assist. It has seemed at times like the Brazilian Spanish International is more interested in fighting opposing CBs and officials than in getting into position to score. It is an odd turnaround for a player that has played a high level for a few years now with 20 goals in 2014-15, 27 in the league and another 8 in the UCL run to the finals for Atletico the year before, 20 in 2012-13 and 10 in 15 games in 11-12. Maybe Chelsea should have paid more attention to his disappointing run at the 2014 World Cup with Spain, but he came and dominated the league for four months. Backups Remy (who did score the Chelsea goal Monday) and Falcoa are not good enough to change games when they are given a chance and Pedro has been below par since a flying start to his Premier League adventure.

Luck has also played a part with many decisions going against the club. Several penalties have not been called, goals have snuck in when they shouldn’t have and few teams have ever had so many players so dramatically fall in form at the same time. On the other hand, much of the “campaign against the club” mentality that Mourinho used until recently seem suspect at best. His selective memory leads him to decry missed calls while conveniently ignoring those that helped his side. The most obvious instance of this was in the Arsenal game, where Diego Costa somehow remained unbooked while his behavior directly led to Gabriel’s dismissal. But plenty of other examples exist, as with the West Brom game and a couple of others.

Overall, Chelsea are a team that is often shambolic defensively, weak in the midfield and lacking the creativity or finishing touch to score enough goals. They have ceded leads, lost games where they dominated possession and looked pedestrian (or worse) most of the time. In composite, it could be true that Mourinho pulled off a miracle last season, getting the best out of players that performed above their natural talents or that were near the end of their run as top level players. John Terry was imperious after many thought he was past his prime, Ivanovic was one of the best full backs in the league, Diego Costa scored at an incredible clip in the first half of the season, Fabergas delivered one sublime pass after another for the first four months and Hazard went from a great talent to one of the best footballers in the league. When that productivity declined, Mourinho was able to organize the team into a defensive stalwart that could squeak out close wins or useful draws. The collective malaise from back to front has meant the close calls are now going in the opposite direction and Chelsea have regressed to their mean talent level. One must say this is a an unlikely analysis, but that Mourinho appears to have pushed his team to overperform last season, while probably contributing to the same squad’s underperformance this term.

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