Having worked through the range of emotions digesting the Paris Saint-Germain and Southampton results we now find ourselves staring down the home straight of the Premier League. It was an evening laced with disappointment and the bitter taste of exiting Europe with a whimper may linger. Naturally some of the overreaction has bordered on embarrassing. Chelsea, being the first team to ever crowd a referee, are once again the #enemiesoffootballTM.
Looking at things positively Chelsea currently sit comfortably atop of the Premier League with the Capital One Cup already on the mantelpiece. However, the shiny veneer of a lofty league position and a trophy seemed so far from the reality of Wednesday night. Outfought, off the pace and resembling nothing like a prototypical Mourinho side, the game trickled by like an progressively bad dream. Manchester City continue to falter, as their result against Burnley proved, so hopefully Chelsea can capitalise.
These were not isolated performances. Simply chalking them up to a bad day at the office sweeps over the fact that we have not played well since Swansea. Wednesday was essentially Chelsea playing at the level they have for much of 2015 and meeting a side capable of playing above that. Coming up so incredibly short, particularly in lieu of having a one man advantage, was astonishing. A distinct lack of character and an overt sense of cautiousness from Mourinho worked wonderfully in the Parisians favour.
Mourinho handled things in his own inimitable fashion with Sky's Andy Burton bearing the brunt of this particular tongue lashing. What Mourinho said was true - this crop of players are the same group who have been top of the league since the first day. However, that is largely where the lethargy of the past eight weeks comes from. The lack of squad rotation has been peculiar but potentially justifiable in Mourinho's eyes. A clear lack of faith in the supporting cast has been prevalent all season.
Chelsea look increasingly shattered in 2015. The phenomenal early season form has tailed off into a series of workmanlike wins and inexplicable defeats. When Sam Allardyce is making lucid points about the need for a winter break, you know that something is wrong with the volume of football English sides consistently endure. Allardyce mentioned that players in the Premier League have no definitive period to break both the "physical and mental fatigue" accumulated over the course of the early season.
Grant James (@GrantJames_CFC), a professional football analyst and coach, walks through the impact. I would definitely recommend that you follow him on Twitter if you do not do so already:
"When players have accumulated fatigue they cannot train or play at a high intensity. Speed of actions and co-ordination suffer as the signals take longer to reach the muscles from the brain. This is why you can easily tell when a player is tired. Not only do they perform less high intensity actions, the quality of even basic actions drops. Hazard, in the City game after facing Liverpool and going to extra time, is a perfect example. He was clumsy, his close control poor and he attempted less dribbles and at a lower speed.
Mourinho is one of the best managers at periodisation (planning of training schedules, both for the team and individuals) so his teams rarely have a lot of injuries. A good example of this is over the festive period where the side had 2 games in 3 days and he had the players do a long cool down on the pitch after the first game to speed up the recovery process. The side then went to Southampton and although they drew, the side pushed for a winner until the last minute while Southampton were shattered after an hour.
The problem with this is that it means Mourinho does not need a big squad so he has poorer depth in the squad and less options from the substitute's bench. Other sides, often with weaker starting XI's, end up bringing on better substitutes than Chelsea have. Football is now very much a 14 man game so if Chelsea have only 12/13 players that Mourinho trusts, it means the side is effectively playing with one less fresh option in every match. With the difficulty of matches in the Premier League, the result is rarely secured early and there is not much chance to take off key men or to "rest with the ball".
Another factor is mental fatigue - this is what Mourinho sides seem to struggle with as he rotates so little. They have less time on the bench or in the stands to rest and refresh. He did this well over earlier months with players like Terry, Hazard and Ivanović given several days off, but he missed other chances to do this in games like Sporting Lisbon at home where Matić and Fàbregas both started.
Even a side like Liverpool are willing to rotate more than us, with Sterling and Sturridge often having games on the bench.
Another worry is how rusty Matić looked on Wednesday after just 2 weeks without a game. He was visibly struggling even in the first half and when he was taken off, he was exhausted. Our replacement was a central defender in midfield, despite having guys like Romeu and Van Ginkel out on loan who could be decent rotation options if Mourinho ever rotated.
The solution isn't easy but having more than 6 defenders for 4 positions, more than 5 central midfielders for 3 positions and more than 3 wingers for 2 positions would be a start! Giving regular minutes to squad players is another important element. If the players can't be trusted in tough league games, then guys like Salah, Schürrle and Remy should feature for the U21's. Not every week as this would block the path of a youth player, but there are plenty of games to go around with our U21's so young and able to play in the lower age groups."
Crucially there is a difference between having a week off between games and having a week off from football. When people talk about the players having had "a week off" they are training and mentally very much within the game. Raheem Sterling is perhaps the perfect example of a player who looked to be burnt out. Yet, after a break which Brendan Rogers suggested "was not so much a physical rest, but a mental rest" Sterling looks as dangerous as ever.
Mourinho has essentially played the same team regardless of opposition or without any real thought to rotation. If the fear is that the squad lacks depth of quality than Mourinho needs to address this in the summer. We have, essentially, stumbled across Kurt Zouma as a starting calibre centre half this season. Had similar opportunities been afforded to other players we may not be in a position where our starting XI look incredibly tired.
Thanks again to Grant James for his contribution to this article.