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The headline news about Chelsea in the week leading to Sunday’s dreadful loss at Manchester City was Jose Mourinho’s public dressing down of first team doctor Eva Carneiro and physio Jon Fearn in the wake of their entirely correct decision to treat a prone Eden Hazard in the closing stages of their opening day draw against Swansea.
Their poor performance against the Welsh side went largely unnoticed with the soap opera of ‘Doctor-Gate’ filling most of the column inches in most newspapers and websites.
For those paying attention to the actual football, however, the manner of Chelsea’s draw raised eyebrows aplenty. The pace of their centre back duo, or lack of it, was apparent as Andre Ayew and Bafetimbi Gomis regularly found space to exploit behind John Terry and Gary Cahill all game long.
Midfield was completely overrun by the excellent Jonjo Shelvey and the threat of their attack, save for the enterprising Willian, was nullified for most of the game. Eden Hazard, in particular, was unusually quiet and Diego Costa was a passenger for large periods.
The most worrying aspect for Chelsea, though, was Branislav Ivanovic’s terrible afternoon against the Ecuadorian winger, Jefferson Montero.
Time and again, Montero beat Ivanovic for pace, turning the Serbian with embarrassing ease at every opportunity. It reminded one of Montero taking Arsenal’s Calum Chambers to the cleaners last November. If Chambers had the excuse of youth, Ivanovic is an experienced fullback with many years of first-team football under his belt.
It therefore did not come as a surprise that City’s game plan was similar to Swansea’s and it took some crucial Asmir Begovic saves to ensure Chelsea still had a fighting chance going into the break.
While talk of a crisis at Chelsea is far-fetched, their dismal start to the season suggests all is not well at the camp of the champions. Much has been said about the club’s lack of significant activity in the transfer window and rightly so.
Heavily-used first team players
Last season, Chelsea cantered to the title with a core of heavily-used first team players, as Mourinho rarely turned to his supporting cast. Form inevitably dipped and this has carried on to the new season.
Chelsea have looked leggy, surprisingly lethargic and appear as though the start of the season has come too early. This was evident all through pre-season and the undeniable fact remains that the squad is in need of urgent refreshing.
Begovic, Radamel Falcao and Baba Abdul Rahman may have arrived so far but they are merely direct replacements for the departed Petr Cech, Didier Drogba and Filipe Luis respectively.
Unlike their other rivals, Chelsea have yet to make a definitive signing that significantly improves their starting line-up.Chelsea’s pursuit of John Stones has been well publicised and while the price Everton want for the youngster may be up for debate, it is not difficult to see why Mourinho is keen.
Lack of pace in the center of defence
As it was against Swansea last week, City exposed the lack of pace among Chelsea’s centre backs and the usually impeccable John Terry was hauled off at half time for the more mobile Kurt Zouma. This has been reported as Mourinho tacitly edging out his captain but strip away the personalities involved for a minute, and the substitution makes sense.
Terry’s lack of pace has been as evident as his talent over the years, with his game relying more on his ability to read the game superbly and his general blood and thunder approach. Terry and a defensive high line are sworn enemies; they never mix.
Andre Villas Boas and Luis Felipe Scolari tried to implement a high line of defence at Chelsea with Terry at the heart of it and it is no surprise both managers were sacked just months into their Stamford Bridge careers.
As City poured forward with malevolent intent, using the pace, trickery and positional awareness of Raheem Sterling, David Silva and Sergio Aguero, Chelsea’s backline floundered spectacularly. Terry who is slowest at the turn suffered more than the rest, naturally. Cahill himself isn’t noted for his pace but the modicum of pace at his disposal meant Terry had to be hooked.
Mourinho explained afterwards: “I had to decide on John or Cahill because Zouma is the fastest player we have in our defensive line. When you are going to play with a high block and you are asking your players to do that, the fastest player has to be on the pitch.
The point was not to bring John out but to bring Zouma in. I wanted to have my fastest player on the pitch and not on the bench because I knew they would play counter attack and long balls into Aguero. I knew I wanted my team to be dominant and to play in the opposition half.”
Slight improvement after the break
Although it is strange to suggest Chelsea improved after the break given they conceded two more goals, in truth, they did. For a brief period at the start of the second half, they stemmed the tide of City’s counter-attack, pinned their hosts back and had a decent chance of getting back into the game.
It is worth asking, then, that for a man praised to the high heavens for his meticulous planning and keen eye for detail, he didn’t envisage this scenario, especially a week after Swansea employed this same template.
Poor start from Ivanovic and the signing of Baba Rahman
Still on the declining standard of the Chelsea defence; Ivanovic has had an inauspicious start to the season and his error led to Fernandinho’s goal. Ivanovic is a fan favourite, with many warming to him due to his robust displays but his start to the season is simply a microcosm of the player he has become in the last couple of years.
His attacking endeavour and vital goals have acted as a useful façade to veil his defensive deficiencies. The Serbian’s many forays into the opposition half leaves his flank exposed and with his advancing age meaning he lacks the pace to keep up, his inadequacies are punished ruthlessly by teams.
Chelsea announced the signing of Baba Rahman shortly after the final whistle on Sunday and the 21-year old Ghanaian international should provide stern competition for Ivanovic, albeit indirectly. With Baba Rahman expected to slot in at left-back, Cesar Azpilicueta will move to his natural position at right-back.
Lack of quality of their supporting cast
Chelsea’s other concern is the lack of quality of their supporting cast. Chasing the game on Sunday, Juan Cuadrado and Falcao were sent on, hardly the kind of players a manager will put faith in to rescue a match for him. Falcao’s descent into the parody of the pre-2014 Falcao continues by the week and Cuadrado increasingly looks like a competition winner drafted for Chelsea.
With uncertainty clouding Costa’s fitness, Chelsea’s back-up strikers simply do not cut the mustard in a title race. Loic Remy may complain about not getting enough chances but the inescapable feeling is that the Frenchman isn’t quite of the requisite standard.
With Nemanja Matic and Cesc Fabregas toiling in midfield, John Mikel Obi, a perfectly capable player, was on the bench but the Nigerian, is not good enough for a side of Chelsea’s ambitions.
Writing off Chelsea early is foolhardy
The season is long and writing off Chelsea this early is foolhardy, something Manuel Pellegrini was quick to point out. “The title will not be decided today. We know Chelsea will be challenging to retain the crown and they know we will be working as hard as possible to win a third one in five attempts.”
While that is true, Mourinho will be wary of getting cut adrift this early in the season, after all, Chelsea’s title win last season was built on getting out of the blocks faster than the rest of the competition.
To avoid that, Chelsea have a couple of weeks to get things right or else a summer of inactivity will lead to a winter of discontent.
Written by Aanu Adeoye
Follow Aanu on Twitter @aanuadeoye
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