Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Chelsea's mid season report card

Jose Mourinho is not a happy man.

There was a point in time I think during the second season of Mourinho's first spell at Chelsea that I honestly started to believe that he was more than just a manager, that he actually had some formula that basically made his teams unbeatable.

Yes he had spent lots of money but his moulding of those players and the fluid nature of his tactical changes during the course of a match - and how it changed that match - left me utterly gobsmacked, he was indeed the oft mocked 'Special one' with a swagger and charisma to match his incredible coaching ability.

His teams won their matches 2-0 and that was the end of it. They certainly didn't win 4-3 and then follow it up by losing 3-2 in the next game. We cried bad luck against the likes of Liverpool and UEFA conspiracies as the reasons for the Champions League eluding us. Chelsea were indeed one of the elite European teams.

This team however is not at that level and it is not yet Mourinho's team. He has had almost no say in the players that are currently in his squad (other than ones he bought the first time around) and that is reflected in a balance of personnel that does not gel with how he likes to play.

Mourinho's previous Chelsea were unfairly maligned as dull - ask any Chelsea fan whether they thought they were dull and the answer would be a resounding no - but what they actually were were brutally tough. They had a level of physicality that other teams simply couldn't counter.

Power and/or pace or both abounded through the team, Drogba, Essien, Carvalho, Terry, Lampard, Ballack, Cech, Makelele, they simply battered teams into submission with a sprinkling of gold dust from the likes of Robben and Joe Cole.

Much has been made of the problems at striker for Chelsea and it is a real issue no doubt. The real problem however is the team has an abundance of attacking midfielders dictating the team plays 4-2-3-1. The problem for Mourinho is that he does not have the players for the '2'.

Mourinho played a similar system (not exact) at Real where he had Sami Khedira and Xavi Alonso. At Chelsea, he has only one genuine holding player in Jon Obi Mikel as Oriel Romeu is on loan at Valencia.

The problem with Mikel is that he isn't very good. His positional play isn't the best and he gives away too many fouls in dangerous positions, to the naked eye he also looks very slow.

With Marco Van Ginkel suffering a serious injury and Michael Essien sadly no longer able to play physically at the highest level, that leaves Mourinho with Ramires and Lampard as his best bets. The problem is both are dynamic box to box midfielders far better suited to a 4-4-2 or 4-3-3. Lampard is also getting on a bit and the fact that he has been Chelsea's best midfielder this season says a lot.

At the back, it is also a long way from the halcyon days of Terry in his pomp alongside the peerless Ricardo Carvalho. Terry is now 33, Gary Cahill is solid but not a world beater and Mourinho it is safe to assume does not trust David Luiz.

Mourinho also seems to have developed an issue with Ashley Cole and against Stoke at the weekend, the strong journeyman Jonathan Walters was able to bully Azpilicueta fairly easily which led to Stoke's second goal.

At right back, Branislav Ivanovic remains a fine player but his performances have brought on a touch of inconsistency versus his very best of a couple of seasons ago.

Whilst Peter Cech has regained some of his confidence prior to his awful head injury he appears to be slowly fading also. One of the biggest decisions Chelsea will have to make is whether to move on the legend to make way for the excellent young Thibaut Courtois. They risk staying with Cech in to decline and losing a player who looks capable of becoming the best goalkeeper in the world in the process.

Up front, Chelsea decided to stick with Fernando Torres, Demba Ba and bring in an ageing Sameul Eto'o rather than give Romelu Lukaku a crack. Everyone has an opinion on this decision (my own was that it was a mistake) but given that it has been made, Chelsea need to make the best of it.

Before his recent injury, Torres was showing renewed signs of life but against Stoke on Saturday it was like the bad all days where he looked like he could play all week and not get a shot on goal.

Ba remains a level below what is required to challenge for league titles and Eto'o whilst still a wonderful player is a fading force.

It is of course far from terrible for Chelsea, a win in Europe will see them top their CL group and they are second in the Premiership, hardly dreadful. One suspects however that it is the defincies of other teams that is allowing Chelsea to occupy such a lofty position right now.

Even in Europe, they have bizarrely lost home and away to FC Basel necessitating they win their last home game to qualify top of the group.

The question for Chelsea is whether this time around Abramovich is inclined to indulge Mourinho to buy the players he will want to play his brand of football. There is a different feel to Mourinho's regime this time and one senses he does not feel as all powerful as he did the last time.

The upcoming January window promises to be a fascinating one with so many teams desperate to strengthen for differing reasons. Chelsea's moves in that period will give us telling insight as to who is dictating transfer policy at the club.

2nd place in the Premiership and a likely winning of their CL group means Chelsea fans should be smiling but there are many cracks that are currently being papered over. Just a C+ for me at this stage - No Nonsense.