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joetweedie | September 14, 2015

The Harding Perspective

Everton (A)

There was a sense of inevitability following Steven Naismith's introduction at Goodison Park on Saturday. He falls into a group of players who seemingly always score against Chelsea. However, what proceeded after the Scotsman's introduction was an aberration. These results do happen, but the performance itself was a horror show: particularly in light of the defeat to Crystal Palace. It is difficult to find any positives currently - blind optimism seems the way forward.

A few days removed from the emotion of the game the script actually wrote itself before a ball was kicked. Chelsea's defensive instability continued, our midfield was porous and our forwards seem to think we get points for passing the ball aimlessly around the opposition area. Mourinho skulked and postured but he got things wrong.

Taking off John Obi Mikel removed any structure from the side and we were far worse for it. It was an attacking ploy, but pulling Fàbregas was the better option. The Spaniard had done nothing all game and playing him deeper is tantamount to sabotage. That air of infallibility that came with Mourinho's sweeping substitutions and tactical changes is waning. Those calculated gambles he often took and won with are not having the same effect.

Notes on the Defence

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Ivanović was again terrible - really, really terrible. You can look for excuses and I actually think he gets a disproportionate amount of stick, but the reality is that we are almost exclusively conceding goals from his channel. His propensity to stand with his hands behind his back as he backs away allowing cross after cross to get by him is bordering comical. An inability to handle even the most basic of winger is worrying. In desperate need of a mental break as much as anything, the Serbian is crumbling before us.

His flaws have been apparent for 2-3 years now, but they were well hidden by team structure and some big performances. With his physical powers in decline, he cannot hide any longer now. He's become a significant weak link who is out of sync with the entire back four (watch how much deeper he is than everyone else on the first Naismith goal).

Kurt Zouma is never going to improve the technical aspects of his game when he needs to compensate so heavily for the weaknesses of others when positioning himself. We forget that he is just twenty years old and has so much to learn. He does a lot of things well but, equally, his awareness and positional play must now improve. His athletic quality is there for all to see, but when Chelsea are playing poorly he has to deal with more than he is comfortable with at this moment.

For Everton's first goal he is torn between already being pulled out of position and making assumptions as to who is picking up Naismith. The Scot turns far too easily in midfield and (for the one millionth time this season) drives straight at Chelsea's back four without so much as a holding midfielder goal side of him. Zouma pushes towards Naismith who passes left and tracks Naismith into the area.

The crucial juncture being that Zouma looks to see where Naismith is (good), sees Nemanja Matić tracking him (good) but then assumes Matić is going to track Naismith. Zouma steps towards the ball to try and cut out a cross (would he do this if Ivanović was likely to get something on the ball?). As he steps forward Matić stops tracking Naismith who ghosts in behind to score a free header. It was a great cross, but the communication between Zouma and Matić was atrocious.

Communication has been sorely lacking in general. Almost every goal we have conceded this season stems, in some respect, from a lack of vocal direction from someone at the back. Naismith's third is a prime example where Zouma is unsure whether to pass Lukaku on to Ivanović or track Naismith - before he can decide, it is too late.

John Terry's commanding displays last season are not translating into 2015/16 and César Azpilicueta is playing okay but looks to be suffering from the form of those around him. Mourinho's flirtation with playing anything approaching a high line must end. We are never going to be a slick footballing side while our best defensive structure is to rely on our back four being comfortable sitting on the edge of our own penalty box.

We are not going to progress this season in terms of pursuing an attacking style, so why are we not building the back four around Terry? Play deep, compact and start getting back some of the solidity we are sorely lacking. It was dull to watch towards the back end of last season, but ultimately who really cares if we start stringing wins together?

Midfield Minefield

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In midfield Chelsea had some semblance of shape with the reintroduction of John Obi Mikel. Our only real period of ascendancy in the game came when Nemanja Matić and the Nigerian briefly asserted themselves. Matić, currently, is extremely difficult to evaluate. Is he wildly out of form, not quite as good as we thought he was or simply overburdened with little help? Teams seem to be finding it easy to pull the Serbian wide (looking at Everton's third goal) and exploit the vast amount of space in behind him. Personally I feel he is being overrun in midfield and looks short of confidence. He looked a bit better once he and Mikel established a rhythm, but it was short lived. Both of their play on the first goal was truly reminiscent of two U12s ball watching.

Was it a surprise that the minute Cesc Fàbregas was moved back into a deeper role, we immediately ceded the midfield and never looked like scoring thereafter? The Spaniard has been utterly invisible for the best part of 2015. Has any Chelsea player ever looked so incapable out of possession yet so capable of playing a killer pass to win a match? Kevin De Bruyne, Juan Mata et al. all felt the Mourinho wrath for this perceived lack of well roundedness. Yet, surprisingly, Cesc Fàbregas remains a permanent fixture on a weekly basis despite not registering a single touch of note all season.

Given the amount of bile directed towards Branislav Ivanović the Spaniard can count himself quite lucky. He has been equally culpable for a string of underwhelming performances and his invisibility in midfield has allowed almost everyone we have played to cut through us like an assortment of training mannequins. One pass in particular during the second half summed up his season. An easy pass for any standard of footballer, let alone someone with Fàbregas' ability, was hopelessly misdirected and under-hit leading to an Everton counterattack.

The lack of steel, athleticism and general quality in midfield is harrowing. I have never seen our midfield look this disjointed, porous and disinterested - even Craig Burley would try and make a tackle. Where is the physicality that embodies a José Mourinho side? We are not technical enough to pass around teams and keep the ball or physical enough to smash them to pieces. Stuck in this purgatorial halfway house between the attacking play of last season and the rigidity with which we finished last season is leading nowhere.

Forwards Underwhelm

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If our defence is a shambles and our midfield an illusion, then our front four are redefining the word ‘ineffective'. Eden Hazard is a shadow of the player last year. He looks chunky and even if he is arguably the most talented player I have seen at Chelsea, the condition he has allowed himself to be in entering a season is appalling. Hazard always seems to start a season carrying a little bit of timber, but it is noticeable how his jolt of acceleration is now more like an energy saving lightbulb than a spotlight.

Eden normally drops a shoulder and creates two yards of space - we then see him Cruyff-turn or feint again to put a defender on their backside. Watching the Everton game back (torture, I know), it was evident that his initial drop of the shoulder was not creating anywhere near the same sort of space. This is not him being figured out, he is too unpredictable for that to be the case, but more his initial burst of speed being lessened by the extra bulk. He needs to get fit and pronto. Mourinho allowed him and others an extended preseason and frankly it looks like this trust has been misplaced.

The rumours swirling about Diego Costa being unhappy seem to have more of a robust foundation with each passing game. Has he had a fracas with Mourinho? Can he not adapt to London? Does he miss Atlético Madrid? He is a ludicrously well paid player, living in a city with probably more wonderful Spanish restaurants than Spanish cities. Someone needs to snap him out of this malaise. The aggression and intent are still there, but it is manifesting itself in such a way where he is no longer winding centre backs up and gaining an advantage. He is merely getting into fruitless battles that are not delivering anything but frustration.

What, exactly, has Loïc Rémy done? This was a chap who scored so many important goals from the bench last season: a striker who had one of the best goals-to-minutes ratios in world football. Yet, he is seemingly now our third choice striker? Falcao has one goal in 74 minutes, but he has been largely unsuccessful when coming off the bench. Start him and see what he can do, or is that too much to ask of a £150,000 a week striker? Falcao is not going to win us many games coming off the bench.

Mourinho

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Has José Mourinho lost his spark? His eyes have that tired and weary look about them. Have teams figured out his unrelenting devotion to 4231? Are we that predictable that even middling teams can exploit all of our weaknesses at once? Mourinho is known for his meticulous planning and tactically disciplined football. Yet, he is currently getting it very wrong and there are no signs that we are heading in the right direction. Firstly it was "just preseason", then it was "just the Community Shield", then it was "just early season" and now we are going backwards.

This is not me pretending to know more about football than Mourinho: but you do not need a Continental Pro Licence to observe that we are getting outplayed regularly. How he stood there and told the media after the Everton game that we deserved more was laughable. Just say they were better and move on. Crystal Palace exploited our midfield weakness, Everton exploited our right hand side and Manchester City simply beat us up physically and at times tore us to pieces. This does not resemble a Mourinho side.

Mourinho seems unable or perhaps unwilling to deviate from his standard 4231. He is continually playing a system that increasingly has been figured out, exposed and places square pegs in round holes. Cesc Fàbregas has been found out as a holding midfielder. Branislav Ivanović has been exploited as a right back. With Eden Hazard hideously out of shape and Diego Costa more likely to fight someone than score, we are unlikely to see a turn of fortune if we continue to persist.

One of my favourite Chelsea anecdotes surrounds Guus Hiddink's (what a man) arrival at Chelsea. After the Scolari reign came to a crashing halt Hiddink stepped into the fray. The Dutchman cleared the air and spoke with the players "over a couple of beers":

"That went down really well," said Terry. "He had a beer and walked up and down the bus speaking with the lads. When you step back, as a player, you appreciate little things like that".

Mourinho is the undoubted centre of much of this tension. You can tangibly see his comments about the squad dripping in barbs thinly aimed at the board. His treatment of both Eva Carneiro and Jon Fearn (you know, the male doctor...) has led to a string of articles about discontent. Whispers concerning John Terry and Mourinho falling out again... Mourinho and Costa... Mourinho and his untouchables... Mourinho and the media... Mourinho and the referees etc.

Mourinho exists in chaos. He is battle hardened and it catalyses him and how he works. His us versus them mentality effectively locked Chelsea down after the #CampaignTM and everyone bought into it. When it delivers league titles it is a thing of repugnant beauty. However, when it causes fissures of this nature it is a destructive and debilitating thing to contend with. You know the narrative by now - Mourinho's third season usually finishes with some explosion of animosity. It cannot be the case now - it just cannot.

Would it be too much to expect Mourinho to take a step back and do the necessary to mend any relationships? Or is it all media conjecture aimed at destabilising the club and driving public wedges further between the manager and his team? At this point who knows but ultimately Abramovich has sacked people for less. I hope there is more of a long-term plan in place, even if the summer hinted at a divide between what Mourinho wanted in terms of personnel and what was delivered.

I recently wrote about the need for Mourinho to be ‘Special'. Wednesday would be a perfect time to start.

About the Author

Plains of Almería Editor & WAGNH Features Writer.

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