Many questioned Jose Mourinho’s vocal dismissal of Chelsea’s title hopes following their impressive 1-0 triumph over Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium last February.
“The title race is between two horses and a little horse that needs milk and needs to learn how to jump,” Mourinho said.
“Maybe next season we can race.”
The Portuguese manager was aware that his side could grasp the title from the self-proclaimed two-horses, but he also knew that his striker profligacy, along with the vast inexperience throughout his squad wouldn’t suffice.
In recent years, Chelsea’s involvement in continental competitions has been successful, but they were irrelevant in their domestic title races, falling behind both Manchester clubs. Roman Abramovich invested well in young talents such as Eden Hazard and Oscar, but there were significant holes throughout the squad that were exposed on a weekly basis.
Mourinho rightly claimed that his side was in transition, utilizing last season as a primitive guideline both psychologically and physically on what it takes to be an elite side in Europe. In that time he had to stray away from the flashy football that Chelsea’s creative players and supporters enjoyed in the opening months of last season, along with offloading fan favourites Juan Mata and David Luiz.
It was part of the evolution.
The combination of entertaining football and results didn’t mesh at Stamford Bridge, thus forcing Mourinho to revert back to his meticulous counter-attacking approach.
“We are going in one direction and the right direction, but it is quite frustrating. Football is about getting results and it’s quite frustrating, as we may have to take a step back in order to be more consistent at the back,” Mourinho stated following a loss to Stoke City.
“It’s something I don’t want to do, to play more counter-attacking, but I’m giving it serious thought. If I want to win 1-0 I think I can as I think it is one of the easiest things in football. It is not so difficult, as you don’t give players the chance to express themselves.”
Chelsea conceded nine goals in the 23 league matches subsequent to those comments, comfortably defeating every team in the top seven. In the end, the lack of a top-class striker proved costly, as they failed to break down inferior opposition, losing games in the latter stages of the season against Aston Villa, Sunderland, and Crystal Palace.
Chelsea finished four points behind champions Manchester City, and crashed out of the Champions League at the semi-final stage, but Mourinho was pleased with the progress upon his return.
Mourinho’s Chelsea, though, enters this season as the bookies favourite, and history makes it difficult to bet against the Blues.
The Portuguese manager’s sides tend to peak during his second season, as his players become accustomed to his philosophy, thus allowing them to carry out his instructions with precipitous efficiency. During Mourinho’s career, Porto won the European Cup, Chelsea retained their Premier League crown, Inter Milan won the treble, and Real Madrid broke records as they dethroned Barcelona.
The Chelsea board’s proactive nature in the transfer market steers Mourinho in pole position to achieve his second season success.
Sales of Romelu Lukaku, Demba Ba, and Kevin De Bruyne, along with the departures of club legends Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole have paved the way for Mourinho to introduce world-class players in Cesc Fabregas, Filipe Luis, and Diego Costa. Didier Drogba will also make an emphatic return to Stamford Bridge, while Thibaut Courtois’ successful loan spell at Atlético Madrid provides Petr Cech with legitimate competition for a starting role.
Stylistically, there isn’t much variation in Chelsea’s system. The Blues may occasionally lack ideas when they dominate possession, but they’re extremely organized without the ball, terrorizing teams in transition with swift counter-attacks.
Chelsea will alter from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3 throughout the season, and play a three-man defence when they desperately need a goal. Deploying Fernando Torres out wide has been the significant tactical change — similar to Samuel Eto’o’s role at Inter — with Torres sporadically varying his movement into central areas. While Torres playing on the flanks may not be one of Mourinho’s preferred moves, it’s an option the Portuguese manager can utilize.
Chelsea’s strength lies in the attacking midfield department, as they now possess two players in each position.
This desperately helps Oscar, as his form dwindled towards the end of last season due to exhaustion. Equally, while Eden Hazard enjoyed his best campaign at the club, scoring 14 league goals, the arrival of Costa and Fabregas should decrease the massive attacking load placed on his shoulders last season. Mourinho will hope both men will take the next step and discover a level of consistency, with Hazard in particular scoring more goals, as the duo enters their third season in the Premier League.
Equally, the likes of Mohamed Salah, Andre Schurrle and Willian are expected to have adapted to Mourinho’s philosophy and the rigorous strains of the Premier League. Salah and Willian’s work ethic and pace down the flanks offer balance, while World Cup winner Schurrle will be eager to add more goals to his resume and cement a place in the starting XI.
Ultimately, Mourinho targeted the areas that required improvement, and acquired world-class personnel to fill them. Gary Cahill and John Terry formed the best centre-back partnership last year, as the Blues carried the best defensive record, conceding 27 league goals.
Luis, arguably the best left-back in Spain last season, offers Mourinho leeway at the full-back position, and ensures that Branislav Ivanovic can step in for Terry when required and Cesar Azpilicueta can play in his preferred right-back position. Courtois, on the other hand, is arguably the best goalkeeper in the world at the tender age of 22, which immediately improves Chelsea’s sturdy back-line.
With Nemanja Matic and Cesc Fabregas favored to form Chelsea’s double-pivot, what appeared to be a weak point in the Blues starting XI since their last title triumph, now looks quite frightening.
Matic arrived in January last season, providing the strength, passing, and reliability at the base of a feeble midfield to impede the opposition’s attacks. Likewise, Fabregas’ familiarity with the league should see him settle quickly, and his direct style of play should create and tally goals.
The Spaniard’s passing range also ensures Chelsea can control games in midfield, along with orchestrating attacks from deeper positions. Chelsea can also rely on reliable midfielders in Ramires and John Obi Mikel as adequate cover, while 21-year-old Marco van Ginkel has returned to full fitness — after enduring a season ending knee ligament injury — producing positive preseason performances alongside Matic and Fabregas.
Costa, however, has been the big positive in preseason, scoring two quality goals and displaying through his work ethic and individual ability why Mourinho was keen on luring the 25-year-old to Stamford Bridge. Although Costa has only endured one prolific season at the highest-level scoring 36 goals in 44 appearances, it’s key to note that he’s yet to enter his peak years and Mourinho is more than capable of maximizing the striker’s talents.
The main worries around Costa is his tendency to drift out of games when teams sit deeper, and many fear that he may not be the man to solve Chelsea’s issues against inferior opposition as his aerial threat isn’t established. Blues supporters also fear the possibility of Costa sustaining a long-term injury, as only 36-year-old Drogba and Torres serve as replacements. With weeks remaining in the transfer window, Mourinho may be poised to make one final move for a striker, as Marko Marin and Victor Moses are likely to be deemed surplus to requirements.
Still, Costa doesn’t need to score 30 goals a season to push this Chelsea side over the hump, and his ability to link play with the midfield and charge powerfully into the channels is one of the various reasons why he’s the ideal counter-attacking striker.
In truth, Chelsea’s summer activity, along with their rivals’ failure to significantly improve their starting XI or squad, merits the Blues as title favourites.
They bolstered their imperious defence with a fine left back and one of the best goalies in the game, the young creative midfielders’ evolution combined with Fabregas’ world-class talent should form a stellar midfield, and they now possess a legitimate goalscorer.
It’s taken Chelsea nearly five years to assemble a squad capable of challenging on both domestic and European fronts, and with the depth the Blues possess, they should be in the hunt for all four trophies available.
The squad at Mourinho’s disposal is built to keep his second season folklore alive.