Given the number of pundits who predicted a second consecutive stroll to the Premier League title for Chelsea, it’s definitely fair to say that the Blues’ start to the 2015-16 season has been below par. Results have been poor, but the performances have been even worse. Admittedly, Chelsea’s fixture list has been somewhat unkind – Manchester City away is probably the most difficult game anyone will play this season, while Swansea City and Crystal Palace are both extremely good sides in their own right – but this is a squad that simply shouldn’t be faltering as embarrassingly as this.
As a collective unit, they have looked unfit, badly prepared and lacking in motivation – for a José Mourinho team, that’s so unusual as to be scary. (Note: one suspects that the much publicised demotion of Eva Carneiro and Jon Fearn has considerably more to do with the shape the team is in than their running on the pitch vs Swansea.) We are so used to seeing Mourinho teams playing with such a powerful degree of certainty in their ideas, so absolutely convinced of their eventual victory that their opposition crumbles in front of them, that the four league matches played so far have been almost unbelievable.
Despite predictable rumbles in the British press, this is not the time to hit the panic button. The most likely outcome is that Chelsea will soon get back up to speed, recover their air of superiority and start swatting their opposition aside with the ease and arrogance we expect. However, that’s not to say there aren’t a few tactical tweaks Mourinho could make to help Chelsea get back to the summit sooner rather than later.
1. The logical full-back switch
Given the size of his backside, it’s tempting to cast Branislav Ivanović as the literal elephant in the room here. The big Serb has been a vital part of Chelsea’s defence for what feels like forever and was arguably the Premier League’s outstanding attacking full-back last season. This time, however, his form has fallen off a cliff. Only four players have been skinned more times than Ivanović this season (and one of them is Cesc Fàbregas), and truth be told, he’s probably still having nightmares about the torment he suffered at the hands of Jefferson Montero on the opening day.
The logical solution is to take Ivanović out of the line of fire, switch César Azpilicueta to his favoured right side and bring in Baba Rahman to play at left-back. In fact, it’s almost too logical: we know how loyal Mourinho is to his trusted lieutenants and José may feel that dropping Ivanović now would be sacrilege, despite the turgidity of his showings. It’s almost maddening that Mourinho feels that way, because such a simple switch could be all Chelsea need.
2. Drop Oscar and play a DM
As Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher astutely highlighted on Monday Night Football a few weeks ago, Chelsea’s collapse against Manchester City came as a direct result of the midfield failing to protect the defence in the most basic way.
Ramires’ jobs on the right were 1. to protect his full-back against overlaps and 2. to become a third body in the middle when play came inside. He did neither, Fàbregas did his patented headless chicken impression and Nemanja Matić was so overworked that he lost all composure and became Cesc 2.0. As a consequence, Man City repeatedly found David Silva in front of the back four and the little genius ran riot, orchestrating a thrashing.
The easiest way to prevent that happening again is to play a specialist anchorman in front of the defence. Thankfully, Chelsea have two options there: John Obi Mikel, still one of the most underrated DMs around, and Kurt Zouma, perhaps a more pragmatic option given the defensive nature of the job. Bringing either into the side would give Fàbregas the freedom to go wherever he wants without leaving the cavernous gaps that are causing Chelsea to suffer so much at the moment.
3. Get Cesc out of central midfield
I mentioned earlier that Fàbregas is one of only four players to have been dribbled past more often than Ivanović, but that only told half the story. Here's the other half: there are currently a grand total of zero Premier League players who have been beaten more times than Cesc this season. He’s an absolute wizard with the ball at his feet, but he’s close to abysmal when the other team has it.
If Mourinho is absolutely set on keeping the 4-2-3-1 system, then Cesc simply can’t play in the second band any more. Matić shouldn’t have to spend the entire season fighting fires by himself. Fàbregas’ creativity is an invaluable tool and, as last season showed, his eye for a pass is often the difference between getting one point and three, so he shouldn’t be dropped from the starting eleven, but a more dependable presence is required in the engine room – both to resurrect Chelsea’s title challenge and to preserve Matić’s sanity.
4. The Workhorse XI
It probably goes against several rules of this site to say this, but as a neutral this writer can (or at least should be able to) get away with it. Here goes: Eden Hazard has been total crap this season. At times, he’s been worse than total crap and, in fairness, he’s been hopelessly let down by his less competent teammates at others. Furthermore, Oscar’s injury has perhaps hit Hazard harder than we would dare acknowledge, robbing him of an invaluable on-pitch understanding.
Really, however, there are no excuses. If Ivanović deserves to be dropped, then there’s an equally good case for dropping Hazard as well. If Chelsea want to climb the table fast, the easiest way to do it is by dispensing with unnecessary flair, picking the most organised and hard-working unit possible and grinding out results. That’s been the Blues’ solution to on-pitch problems for over a decade and it wouldn’t be much of a surprise if Mourinho reverted to type and did it again.
5. The left-field shout: a back three
This move would be about as un-Mourinho as it gets, but no hypothetical list of alternative tactics is complete without a back three and a reference to a side beloved of football hipsters all over the world. Walter Mazzarri’s Napoli team may have won nothing more than the 2011-12 Coppa Italia, but they more than made up for their lack of silverware by being unbelievably fun to watch.
The defensive solidity of their deep-sitting 3-4-2-1 came from the sheer numbers they kept behind the ball, but they were experts at forcing turnovers and executing extremely quick counter-attacks, relentlessly looking to play dangerous passes into space and sprinting forward at will. Powerful forward Edinson Cavani will never play in a system better suited to his style, while for a period limited but hard-working players such as Ezequiel Lavezzi and Cristian Maggio looked like world beaters. Maverick creator Marek Hamšík added the brains to the brawn in a free-ish role behind the striker.
In an ideal world, Mourinho would at least try this system. Chelsea’s defensive talent far exceeds Mazzarri’s Napoli’s and if Chelsea commit to keeping that many men organised behind the ball, the opposition would find it near impossible to score. For Cavani, read Diego Costa. For Lavezzi and Maggio, read Pedro and Ivanović. For Hamšík, read Hazard. The ingredients are all there for this to work – it only remains for Mourinho to take the gamble.