Monday, August 31, 2015

It's the Monday Moan...again

Twitter/Chelsea FC
I'm determined to not let this become a thing. But in case you hadn't noticed - and there are aliens on worlds light years away who've been following this saga with ease - the defending Barclays Premier League champions have been crap.

Those of a less churlish mood might wish to add "relatively speaking", pointing out that, yesterday morning, there would have been hungover pub teams on Wanstead Flats getting hammered 9-0 by equally dilapidated sides who could be justifiably described as crap. But few of them will be earning in excess of £100,000 a year, let alone that amount per week.

So do, please, afford me the opportunity of a cathartic release Monday morning after yet another "indifferent" performance. Less polite terms are also available.

Because, by comparison to the standards established in the opening 90 minutes of last season, and which remained in place until at least Christmas, Chelsea have, over the first competitive games of the new term, been unquestionably lousy.

First, though, credit must be given where it is due. On Saturday, Crystal Palace - like Swansea on the opening day - pitched up at Stamford Bridge with purpose and intent. Alan Pardew had organised his players to probe, to exploit weaknesses, to be quick to attack on the break and efficient in closing Chelsea down. Everything, in fact, which José Mourinho had Chelsea doing in the first half of last season, when they galloped away with the Premier League leadership.

On Saturday afternoon - in a rare 3pm kickoff - Palace could not have been faulted. Chelsea, on the other hand... In his post-match interviews, Mourinho was unusually - actually, let's just call it "relatively" - contrite. Apart from a slight dig at refereee Craig Pawson, there were no unwarranted or eccentric deferrals of blame. No members of the medical staff were accused of misunderstanding the sport, no conspiracies were alleged.

Instead, Mourinho talked of "three or four" players "not performing to an acceptable level". He didn't name them, of course. Perish the idea of Mourinho calling out the inadequacies of one his club's employees in public. But those of us watching from the stands could see quite clearly who has not been performing acceptably throughout the first four games of the season - and it is more than three or four: Ivanović, Fábregas, Matic, Cahill and, dare I say it, Hazard.

Elevated to vice-captain as, presumably, reward for his seniority (though his age now puts him in the category of single-year contract extensions for over-30s), Ivanović has been nothing like the dependable right-back he was last season. Indeed it is frightening just how fast his decline has taken. But for almost every one of the nine goals Chelsea have shipped over the first four games, the 31-year-old Serb has been partially at fault, appearing reluctant to close down strikers with the authority and accuracy he did last season.

Fábregas may not have been so costly in front of goal, but his ineffectiveness in creating the opportunities he was gifting Costa last season has been a glowing, pulsating open sore this season. On Saturday we just wished for him to be taken off, such was his indecision and obvious inability to contribute instinctively telling passes. Indeed, apart from the one tackle late in the game that ultimately contributed to Falcao's lucky but well-taken headed goal, nothing Fábregas seemed to do carried any merit. Such a sad state of affairs for a gifted talent who brought genuine smiles to the faces of Chelsea fans in the first half of last term.

Matic was a revelation when he rejoined the club that had hastily offloaded him three seasons before. After the club had failed to properly replace Claude Makele in the holding position - and, no, John Obi Mikel never will - Matic was the key to Chelsea's imperious defensive capability last season. "Parking the bus" is such a moronic term when you have a holding midfielder like Matic, who policed Chelsea's final third so assuredly, compensating for Terry's lack of pace but at the same time ensuring the captain could put up the brick wall that, frankly, did the job in easing pressure on the goalkeeper. But, like his Serbian teammate Ivanović, Matic has been out of position too often, sloppy in his distribution, and another worryingly off-form version of himself just a few months back.

Most if not all Chelsea fans were delighted by the rare arrival of an Englishman when Gary Cahill joined from Bolton. From a performance point of view, there was genuine pleasure at the sight of a centre-half who could partner John Terry in the same manner that Ricardo Carvalho had done during the first Mourinho spell in charge. But take Terry out of the equation - as was the case on Saturday with the skipper suspended - and Cahill looks lost. Yes, he huffs and puffs and applies himself to the cause as all English central defenders do, but rarely at present in positions he should be in.

We can talk all we want about Chelsea bringing in Everton's John Stones as Terry's long-term successor, but right now, Chelsea need a defence that communicates with each other, which is alert and has the pace to deal with teams like Swansea and Crystal Palace who intelligently sent their forwards up to harass Chelsea's visibily ineffective defence.

It is not all doom and gloom: the arrival of Pedro has put a smile on the faces of Chelsea fans, and though he didn't get on the scoresheet again this weekend, the cleverness and quality of the 28-year-old Spaniard was again evident. And, late on, when Mourinho went for broke with his subsitutions, the insertion of Ruben Loftus-Cheek - presumably now recovered after his 'tough love' Mourinho mauling during pre-season - added strength to the holding position that, worryingly, Matic has been lacking.

Kenedy - Twitter/Chelsea FC
But most pleasing of all was the arrival of Brazilian teenager Kenedy, who spent his debut zipping about the left side in much the same way as Eden Hazard should have been. Except that he hasn't.

Ever since he wasted his chance to score against former teammate Petr Čech in the Community Shield at Wembley, something has not looked right about the Belgian. As with Ivanović, it has been frightening to see how a matter of weeks between the end of last season and the start of this one has seen Hazard's ability drop off.

There is some merit, however, in the idea that defenders have just sussed him out, and that they're better prepared for his mercurial runs into the box, and his attempts to whip in balls to Costa. But that doesn't feel like the full explanation.

"Will I accept this, cross my arms, sit in a nice chair and wait calmly for the performance level to be back?", Mourinho told reporters after the Palace game. "No, I won’t. I have to work, I have to react, to analyse and if I feel the players are not in a condition to react and give more, I have to make changes. I have never had a problem with that." That, though, may be called into doubt. It was painfully clear on Saturday where the weakness was, and what the solution should have been.

"A lot of it is down to the opposition finding weaknesses," said former coach Ruud Gullit on Match of the Day on Saturday night, who highlighted how Crystal Palace had indentifed Chelsea's right-side as the area to exploit. Throwing money at the problem isn't, however, the solution. Yes, with the transfer window slamming shut tomorrow, Chelsea could go bollocks-out and splash £100 million on Pogba and Stones. But that will not necessarily restore the team to the fighting strength of Manchester City, or indeed the teams around them, like Palace and Leicester, who logically shouldn't be there at all.

No, regaining the eight points City have over Chelsea takes something else, something that has worried me in the past with Mourinho's teams when they've been out of sorts: mentality.

During the Portuguese's first season back at the club there were games away to Palace and Aston Villa which ended in defeat and shouldn't have done. On both occasions, Chelsea had the technical edge, the fitness and the tactics. But on both occasions, their heads weren't right. Likewise against Bradford in last season's FA Cup, when the League One side came back from 2-0 down at Stamford Bridge to remarkably win  4-2. You only do that against so-called grander teams when they are playing with only half their heads.

John Terry speaks frequently about Mourinho's winning mentality and his inability to deal with defeat. "When I win, I want to win again, I want to win more," he is quoted in today's Times. "If you win [the title] once and the next season you are not on fire, not ready to at least fight for more, it is very sad." That may be the case, but it is now down to Mourinho to do something about it. He has the players - with more out loan if needed - to change things, to instigate a winning mentality that is patently lacking.

Many, if not most, Chelsea fans could probably do with not winning the Premier League again, if the team bags the Champions League trophy for only the second time in the club's history. But right now, that seems a long way off. 13th place in the Premier League table, and a negative goal difference of three is not a Chelsea that, in its recent history, will be recognisable or readily acceptable by anyone who follows the club.

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