Stamford Bridge rang out in jeers. Chelsea had lost their second consecutive match, this time in front of their home supporters, as animosity drifted around the stadium. It was only September, and the West London side looked to be heading down a familiar cycle. The pressure was rising, as a club of Chelsea’s stature couldn’t afford to crash out of the group stage under their newly-appointed manager.
Subsequently, Chelsea went on a fantastic run, losing only once over the last two months, and climbing to the top of their Champions League group. The results displayed a gradual improvement under Mourinho, who is desperate to win silverware and a trip to Basel was the ideal occasion to make that statement.
A win for the West London club would secure qualification, but the Swiss side also required maximum points to keep their European campaign alive. Here are three observations on Basel’s historic victory against Chelsea.
Basel attack wide areas
It was an unexpected onslaught. Basel was on the attack from the first minute and Chelsea couldn’t cope. They pegged Mourinho’s men into their own half, searching for an opening in the final third. The Swiss side was unfortunate not to take the lead on several occasions, as Petr Cech made numerous top-class saves to keep his side in the match.
Yet, Chelsea were the opposite – they were sloppy in possession, and their slow buildup didn’t help the cause. Their main outlet in the first half was right back Branislav Ivanovic, who earned his side a corner, and provided a scintillating cross for Samuel Eto’o, but he was unable to connect with the Serbian’s cross.
Apart from that chance, Chelsea were lethargic. Eto’o was practically an isolated figure upfront, Willian provided glimpses of brilliance – barring his final ball – and Oscar also failed to have an impact on the matches. Eto’o ‘s quiet night came to a halt in the 42nd minute, when the Cameroonian striker was stretchered off the pitch due to injury, thus leading to Fernando Torres’ appearance.
While Chelsea struggled to push forward as a unit, Basel found openings to exploit. Despite Willian and Oscar adequately tracking back to protect their fullbacks, Mohamed Salah and Valentin Stocker enjoyed space in wide areas. Chelsea’s fullbacks sat narrow when defending, and they were forced to come of position to close the wingers down.
Basel’s wide men made runs behind the Chelsea fullbacks when possible – particularly they were dangerous on the break, as Ivanovic and Azpilicueta were caught out in narrow positions, which invited Basel’s wide players to push forward.
Coincidentally, a mixture of pushing too many men in advanced areas, and their narrow positioning led to Salah’s winner. Fabian Schar played an exceptional cross-field pass behind Ivanovic, and Salah ran onto it, brushed off the Serbian and beat Cech at the far post. The warning signs were evident, and it was shocking to see Mourinho ignore this feat, considering the joy Basel were having down both flanks.
Similar to the first meeting at Stamford Bridge, Basel’s wide men played a pivotal role in their well-deserved victory, as Salah and Stocker terrorized Chelsea’s defence.
Hazard and Torres impact
There was no significant improvement from the Blues at the start of the second half, which forced Mourinho to introduce Eden Hazard for the unimpressive Oscar. Chelsea was dismal in the final third – they didn’t test Yann Sommer, as the Blues only recorded one shot over the course of 90 minutes.
From an attacking perspective, Hazard and Torres’ introduction led to a gradual improvement in Chelsea’s activity around the final third. The Chelsea duo provided a direct element of attack that away side lacked in the first half – as Willian’s tracking forced him to start from deeper positions, and Chelsea’s passing was dire.
Hazard and Torres combined well around the 18-yard box, and their will to take defenders on from deep positions, opened up space for Chelsea’s midfielders to attack. Mourinho’s men got into a great position in the 60th minute, when Hazard and Torres combined, thus opening up a shooting lane for the Belgian, but he opted to played a well-weighed pass out wide to Ramires, but the Brazilian’s first touch was abysmal.
Both men have been scrutinized in the past for uninspiring performances in a blue shirt, but they drove Chelsea into dangerous positions in the final third. Chelsea’s display was dire, but Torres and Hazard provided glimpses of brilliance that gave Blues supporters a glimmer of hope.
Chelsea need more than a striker
There’s been a constant shout for Chelsea to add a world-class striker to their squad in January, but the West London side shouldn’t overlook the other issues they possess. Mourinho opted to stick with the same three-man midfield that was successful at West Ham over the weekend.
“We go through because Schalke didn’t get a result, and that is not the same. I can only find one reason for the performance, and I saw signs of it from the first minute: my team were tired. We paid the price today of the international week, and from the game against West Ham where we had put in an outstanding performance,” Mourinho said.
“We paid the price today of the international week, and from the game against West Ham where we had put in an outstanding performance. But we made a big mistake in the first second of this game, immediately, and after that we made mistakes defensively, with the ball, lost easy passes, lost the ball, and we finished with a ridiculous goal,” he added.
Chelsea’s midfield trio was constantly being overrun in midfield – Basel’s attacking three effortlessly skipped past Mourinho’s men in midfield and found it considerably easy to receive the ball between the lines. Lampard was out of breath chasing shadows, as he struggled to complete the full 90 – seemingly, the Englishman can no longer handle two games in a week. Ramires has failed to reach the heights of the past two seasons, as he wandered around midfield bewildered, conceding possession easily, and albeit finding good positions in the final third, his poor touches let his side down.
Mourinho’s limited midfield trio withholds individual duties – Mikel protects the back four and ensures Chelsea sustain possession, while Lampard and Ramires push forward, but this leaves Chelsea vulnerable to counter-attacks, as their midfield often lacked structure. Frankly, besides making runs into the box – which is slowly becoming ineffective – Lampard doesn’t offer much going forward.
Chelsea’s weak area is in midfield – they lack a player that can dictate the tempo of the match, and provide positive forward passes. Likewise, in the double-pivot, Mourinho’s reluctance to play Mikel and Ramires together often leads to the Brazilian playing in a deeper role – which hinders his strengths.
Chelsea’s intent to sign a world-class striker is vindicated, but as the season wears on, the Blues will continue to suffer if quality personnel aren’t added to a feeble midfield.
Basel were worthy winners on the night – the Swiss side exposed Chelsea’s weaknesses in midfield and down the flanks, and they were organized when the away side held possession.
In particular, Fabian Schar was exceptional – exceeding expectation on the defensive end, and providing a winner for Salah to win the match.
“After our great display in the first half we realized we could get a result. It obviously helped us that Chelsea wanted to play football themselves and not just sit deep. This allowed us to find gaps. To beat Chelsea twice is historic for this club,” Yakin said.
“We had situations to score but had bad control, no sharpness. The team was tired. When the team is tired, defensive and attacking mistakes can happen, and you concede goals that you never normally concede. But Basel deserved the bonus. They were the better team,” Mourinho said.
Chelsea qualified for the round of 16 in an uninspiring manner, as Mourinho blamed the poor display down to fatigue and lack of squad rotation. Ultimately, the result, along with the performance was inexcusable – his men were poor on the night, they lacked invention, guile, structure and a proper game plan. Simply, Mourinho’s tactics were dire, and life at Chelsea won’t get easier until he improves the midfield, and provides another offensive dimension.