With just eight points from seven games, good for 15th place and a full eight points behind league leaders Manchester United, what?s going wrong at Stamford Bridge?
Chelsea did fight back to draw 2-2 at Newcastle on Saturday but Jose Mourinho?s side are still struggling. With just eight points from seven games, good for 15th place and a full eight points behind league leaders Manchester United, what?s going wrong at Stamford Bridge? Nick Miller assesses some possible solutions.
1. Change the formation to 4-3-3
Jose Mourinho has been wedded to a 4-2-3-1 system for much of his career, certainly at Real Madrid and in his second spell at Chelsea, but he has shown some flexibility in the past. Thus it could be a good time to try some tweaks, albeit relatively minor ones, in order to regain control of a few games.
Chelsea?s defence has provided plenty of high-profile examples of problems, but perhaps one of the biggest weaknesses this season has been their midfield. Concerns about the form of Cesc Fabregas have been well-documented but his partner Nemanja Matic, the man who is supposed to do much of the Spaniard?s tackling and further dirty work, has been nowhere near as dominant. Opponents have not only had much more space in which to work in front of the Chelsea back four, they also don?t have to worry quite as much about being picked apart.
Fabregas showed a few glimmers of his previous form in the 2-0 win over Arsenal but he has not been the player Chelsea really need him to be for quite some time. The problem is that Mourinho?s alternatives are relatively limited: John Obi Mikel isn?t (and probably never will be) good enough, while Ramires is a curio of a player, a man just as likely to trip over his own shoelaces as hammer a rasping shot into the top corner (he did the latter against Newcastle last weekend).
Jose Mourinho?s side did fight back for a point at Newcastle on Saturday but a formation switch could be beneficial.
If Mourinho doesn?t think some of his younger players are ready enough, another option would be to alter his system slightly to a 4-3-3 set up with either Oscar or Willian moving slightly deeper. Both Brazilians have the work rate Mourinho demands, plus enough skill and creativity to offer another option to Fabregas in the middle. This tweak would provide a little more ballast in midfield, and take the pressure off both Fabregas for creativity and Matic for industry, giving more protection for the back four without losing a huge amount going forward.
2. Try some of the kids
Mourinho?s record of bringing through young players isn?t particularly good, but this time at Chelsea he does at least have a few good options around the first team. The most obvious, both in terms of proximity to the side and potential need, is Ruben Loftus-Cheek, the rangy midfielder who impressed in the Champions League win over Maccabi Tel Aviv. With midfield being a possible area of weakness, perhaps a player like Loftus-Cheek could offer an alternative and a way to pep up a sluggish side.
?I listened to what the manager said back then and thought about it over the summer,? Loftus-Cheek told the Evening Standard recently. ?If he says I have to work harder, then I have to work harder. I will listen to him in any situation and try to better myself.? If nothing else, it?s surely worth trying Loftus-Cheek rather than Mikel or Ramires.
Another potential wild card is the 19-year-old Brazilian winger Kenedy. After signing him Mourinho planned to send him out on loan (as with most of the young players on Chelsea?s books) but a sterling performance in preseason persuaded the Portuguese to keep him with the first-team. Therefore, if Kenedy can accelerate Mourinho?s plans for him in that respect, there?s little reason to think he can?t do the same by pushing on from the fringes and actually into the starting XI.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek has impressed in brief appearances and could be a good option to revive the Blues? midfield.
?With Pedro, Hazard, Willian and Kenedy, no problems, we have competition, we can rotate, we can decide,? Mourinho said last week. While it?s always tricky reading too much into anything the Chelsea manager says, Kenedy will no doubt be encouraged that his name is at least being included in the options.
3. Bring in Baba Rahman, move Cesar Azpilicueta to right-back
Only Sunderland ? poor, shambolic Sunderland ? have conceded more goals than Chelsea in the Premier League so far this season, and sometimes it?s easy to see why, most notably of course against Newcastle. The two goals they conceded on Saturday, one from a breakdown in communications between Kurt Zouma and Branislav Ivanovic and the other a free header from a corner, scream of a defence without anyone to organise them. It would seem to suggest a recall for John Terry is in order but another option would be one that Mourinho has already tried.
While giving Ivanovic the captaincy is perhaps an indication that he doesn?t have any plans to drop the Serbian full-back soon, he surely cannot ignore some of his performances this season. Dropping him, bringing in Baba Rahman and moving Cesar Azpilicueta to right-back could be one way to revive his defence and provide a little more balance. It would also give him further options up front, as having two attacking full-backs on their ?natural? flanks would provide more natural width, thus allowing him to play a narrower setup in attack, if required.
4. Get the best from Eden Hazard again
This one perhaps is a little ephemeral because it basically amounts to noting that Chelsea would be better if their best player was performing better. Admittedly, this isn?t massively helpful or constructive but Chelsea have often looked sluggish in attack and that?s partly due to last season?s player of the year not quite producing his best form.
Eden Hazard?s slow start to the season has also played a part. Reviving and inspiring him again will be vital.
Hazard has no goals (the heavily deflected effort against Arsenal was ruled a Calum Chambers own goal) and two assists, both of which were short passes to players who subsequently scored from outside the area (Pedro against West Brom and Ramires against Newcastle). This is not to say that Hazard is the biggest of his side?s problems or that he has been a passenger, but when he?s on form then Chelsea really sing. Mourinho must find a way to revive him, whether that?s through a simple word or two or from some sort of tactical switch.
?I am feeling good. Last year I had a good season. I have not lost my quality,? Hazard said recently. It?s now Mourinho?s job to find it again.
5. Do nothing different, carry on as normal
Of course, all of this could be pointless tinkering ? change for the sake of change ? and there might already be signs that things are on the turn for Chelsea. There was the victory over Arsenal, which admittedly happens so often that it?s more like the sun rising in the morning than a sure sign of recovery. And as bad as Chelsea were in the first half against Newcastle, they did at least show some spirit and gumption in the last 20 minutes to claim a draw. You suspect that if the game had lasted five minutes longer, they would have found a winner.
?I am the current champion of England. Why should I be in trouble?? Mourinho said a couple of weeks ago. ?The only problem we have is that we haven?t had good results. We aren?t happy, but we know what we are. With us, you only have to go back three months, we were the best. Best team, players, manager.?
It is worth noting that since Mourinho made those comments, Chelsea have played four games in all competitions, scored 12 goals and lost none of them, and while it?s tricky to get too excited about wins over Walsall and Maccabi Tel Aviv, it?s perhaps a representation that the sky is not in fact falling in at Stamford Bridge. Even the best teams have a blip, and while Chelsea?s run of just one win in their first five league games is longer than usual, it could just be a blip. They started preseason training a week after most other sides, so it?s possible that it?s taken this long for them to get up to speed.
One hates to resort to the clich? of a team not becoming bad overnight but it?s tough to think that a side like Chelsea?s, even with their ageing parts, really have disappeared off a cliff so dramatically. In any case, as Manchester City?s two recent defeats show, there is no truly dominant team in the Premier League. The defence of their title is far from dead yet.