The honeymoon is over.
Jose Mourinho did not look happy or special as the full-time whistle blew at Stamford Bridge last night. The Portuguese manager walked straight down the tunnel as his side blew a one goal lead in the second half, dropping three points in their Champions League opener against Basel.
Mourinho was left bewildered by the result, and his side’s performance, as he was quick to question their maturity.
‘The team is not one with maturity and personality to face the difficult moments in the game,” Mourinho said.
“Today when the first negative moment which was the equaliser arrived, the team shakes a little. But the only thing you can do is work,” he added.
However, despite the Portuguese manager stating his ‘young eggs’ are not ready, here are three observations that stood out in last night’s defeat.
Failure to bolster the midfield in the summer
A distinct weakness in the Chelsea squad Mourinho inherited in June was the double pivot. Roman Abramovich splashed the cash this summer to provide depth in the three roles available behind the striker, along with the arrival of Samuel Eto’o. In fairness, Eto’o looks rusty – which is expected due to his tenure in Russia where he was rarely tested – but his ability to link play with the attacking three makes him the best candidate of the three strikers available.
While the backline could also use some improvement, the two players in the double-pivot is the key area that Chelsea has overlooked. Last night, Mourinho handed 20-year-old Marco Van Ginkel a start, alongside Frank Lampard. The other two options at his disposal were Ramires, John Obi Mikel, and the ineligible Michael Essien – this is a pretty feeble midfield for a side that aspires to contend in Europe.
In Ramires they possess an energetic box-to-box midfielder, who is arguably more threatening on the right flank. Mikel, a limited defensive midfielder, who insists on spreading sideway passes, along with failing to replicate the attacking prowess displayed at the international level. Lampard, a 35-year-old midfielder that can get into great scoring positions – and will score goals – but fails to impose his authority on a match, often playing passes to his defenders, yet frequently being dragged out of position by opponents. And, the young starlet van Ginkel, who has the ability to play as the attacker in the pivot, but was ordered to stay deeper last night, to accommodate Lampard.
Mourinho’s squad doesn’t possess a top-class box-to-box midfielder, or a deep-lyer to protect the back four, maintain balance, or take pressure off the attacking three to create or ignite the attack. And against a technical side such as Basel, the Blues struggled to impose their authority and create chances in the final third. Lampard’s continuous appearances in the squad isn’t beneficial, as his only ideal partner is Mikel – seeing as the England international’s presence imposes attacking limitations on Van Ginkel and Ramires. While Marouane Fellaini, Kevin Strootman, Fernandinho, Paulinho and Joao Moutinho made summer moves, Chelsea’s failed attempt to capture Wayne Rooney – whose presence could’ve overshadowed these issues, domestically – now sees the Blues endure the burden of a mediocre double-pivot.
It’s unlikely that Van Ginkel will get enough games to warrant a starting spot, whereas it’s unknown when Essien will feature in the Premier League, thus leaving the Portuguese manager with three options. Chelsea’s midfield isn’t dreadful, but it doesn’t meet the standards of a side aspiring to challenge for silverware on either front.
Ashley Cole targeted
There’s been a recurring theme in both of Chelsea’s defeats this week, as teams are beginning to identify an area to expose when they face the west London side. Ashley Cole, 32, is declining, which is expected, yet making him a liability in Chelsea’s backline. Seamus Coleman and Steven Naismith constantly attacked the space behind the England international at Goodison Park this weekend – Naismith’s winner stemmed from an overload on Cole’s flank, which saw the Chelsea fullback lose his marker.
Murat Yakin’s men took the same approach instructing Mohamed Salah to make runs behind Cole. It was simple link up play between Marco Streller and Alexander Frei that pulled Chelsea out of position, allowing Salah to make a straight run behind Cole. Better decision making from the Egyptian winger could have led to goals, but Salah punished Chelsea in the second half with a terrific first time finish – another example of the Basel winger attacking space behind Cole.
The English full back no longer offers a legitimate threat going forward, and while he’s still a quality defender, he’s slowly being matched for pace and his poor positional play is being exposed. Along with the other senior English players – excluding John Terry – Cole has been poor, and his mistakes have played a role in Chelsea’s poor results.
Attacking three conundrum
Many have been quick to point out Chelsea’s obsession with nifty creative players, often stating that the arrivals of Andre Schurrle, Kevin De Bruyne and Willian were unnecessary. While that banter is ridiculous considering the amount of games Chelsea play in a season, there is an issue that Mourinho faces with the six attacking midfielders at his disposal. The Portuguese manager has struggled to find his best trio to feature in the starting lineup on a consistent basis, thus leading to consistent alterations in that area.
Willian made his Chelsea debut last night, and despite showcasing a few moments of brilliance, his performance was lacklustre. Oscar continues to show why he’s Mourinho’s main choice for the no.10 role, while Eden Hazard’s individualism continues to hamper Chelsea’s threat in the final third – seeing as his finishing has been dire and he’s failed to penetrate. The trio often interchanged positions, looking for openings, but Yakin’s men sat deep in two banks of four and their compact shape nullified any space available. The narrow attacking three was stifled in midfield, Lampard and Van Ginkel could only play passes into wide areas, and Chelsea’s fullbacks weren’t getting into advanced positions.
Oscar and Hazard look to be key cogs in Mourinho’s advanced positions, with the right side still available. Thus far, De Bruyne has made a legitimate case as to why he should join the attack, but the signing of Willian and the presence of fan favourite Juan Mata, pose many issues for the Portuguese manager – issues that need to be solved soon.
At the moment, Chelsea is in no danger of missing out on the knockout round for the second consecutive season. Unlike last year, the competition in their group is a tad weaker, and with the quality available to Mourinho, the opposition shouldn’t pose any erratic challenges.
“We lost three points that we must get somewhere else – at Basel, Schalke or Bucharest, or all of them or some of them,” Mourinho said.
“The objective of finishing top two in the group stage and to go to the next phase is an objective that is not lost, far from it, and it is an objective that we are going to fight for. It is an objective that I believe very much that we are going to achieve,” he added.
Mourinho’s return was never going to be heartwarming and magical as portrayed – his first stint wasn’t either – but maturity, tactical tinkering and modifying these issues is required, if the Blues intend on enjoying success this season.