Guest post: Whither Chelsea?

Chelsea are normally a great source of Fantasy Premier League players, but not this year. I asked Ruth_NZ why and here is his reply: 

I am a Chelsea supporter, have been since my dad took me to my first game nigh on 50 years ago. We have family memberships and I get to a fair few games. I know the club pretty well. I guess that’s the reason that Diva asked me about my thoughts on Chelsea’s current situation and prospects. This is the result, written in the way of “the story of the season”.

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1. Pre-season was a disaster

In 2014/15 Chelsea’s preparation (starting at Cobham with a couple of local friendlies, followed by an altitude training camp in Austria with some European friendlies) had been perfect and resulted in a fantastic start to the season. This time Chelsea started a week later than any other Premier League team because Jose Mourinho wanted them to have a good break. The first day of pre-season was in the USA because it was fitted around a US tour. Basically pre-season was massively compromised by commercial interests and was about as far from ideal as you could get.

On the first day of the season, Chelsea came up against a Swansea team that had started pre-season two weeks before Chelsea and hadn’t compromised it. The result was 2-2 but it was obvious that Chelsea didn’t look fit or sharp at all compared to a well-prepared Swansea. That was the first step on the slippery slope, followed by a demoralising beating from a sharp Manchester City team and, after a narrow win at West Brom, a 1-2 home defeat by Palace.

I was at the Palace game and Chelsea didn’t deserve to lose it – the stats show that they had 64 per cent possession, double the shots and double the shots on target. But too many Chelsea players were way below par – Ivanovich was getting taken apart by every winger he faced and was targeted mercilessly by Palace, Costa overweight and not sharp, Hazard not incisive, Fabregas lightweight and Matic looking clumsy. Chelsea were now sliding down the slope.

2. Complacency at the club?

The late start to pre-season could have looked clever if Chelsea had started well. Now it looks complacent. And the complacency also stretches to the summer transfer window. The previous season, Costa and Fabregas were lined up in advance and signed on July 1. This time, nothing of the sort. Chelsea spent the summer chasing two players they couldn’t get – Stones because Everton wouldn’t sell and Pogba because he’s waiting for a move to Real Madrid and wouldn’t come even when Juventus accepted Chelsea’s bid of around €75m. Pedro was an afterthought, it was a top central midfielder that Chelsea needed and they didn’t get one. “Champions need to strengthen” was Alex Ferguson’s motto. Chelsea didn’t. City did, big time, and so did United.

3. Crisis of confidence

The early results led to a crisis of confidence and the manager didn’t help. Jose Mourinho is loved by Chelsea fans and the vast, vast majority want him to stay, there’s no doubt of it. Personally I’d want him to stay even if Chelsea finished mid-table this season. I have experienced many mid-table finishes before (and worse) and it would be nothing new to me – I used to go to Chelsea in the old second Division when they were awful and I would do so again. It is also true that Abramovich wants him to stay – after all he only signed a new four-year contract last summer and the whole idea of Mourinho coming back was that it would be long-term.

But there is no doubt that Chelsea’s poor start took Mourinho completely out of his comfort zone – I don’t think he had experienced anything like that in his whole managerial career. He has had to find solutions for a problem he hadn’t faced before and he didn’t have them to hand. The pressure showed in his immoderate treatment of Eva Carneiro and his unusual (for him) criticism of individual players. His calm was gone.

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Meanwhile the players couldn’t put it together. Anyone who has excelled at something will know how important confidence is. When you have it then certain things that you do are easy and come naturally. When something punctures it you can find that, try as hard as you like, you can’t do them at all, it just won’t come. That’s how it was for Chelsea. They kept trying to play like they had for most of last season but it wouldn’t come. You could see the strain on the faces of Hazard, Fabregas, JT… They knew it but they couldn’t change it.

4. False dawns and injustices

As September passed, Chelsea couldn’t pull themselves out of it – even a run of three successive wins didn’t dispel the collective unease which was, by now spreading to the Chelsea crowd. And it reached its nadir on October 3 against Southampton, another game I was at. Chelsea dominated the first half in a very, very quiet Stamford Bridge and were deservedly 1-0 up. Then, just before half time, Southampton equalised. The collective groan in the players and the crowd was almost tangible. It was as if that one goal sealed the game. Chelsea seemed to have no reserve of resilience left to call upon.

During this time it is also true that Chelsea somehow seemed to be on the receiving end of a succession of poor refereeing decisions and what, to Chelsea fans at least, almost looked like a vindictiveness towards the club and especially the manager. Costa’s ban for a hand flap (given after the event) against Arsenal; the fine and suspended stadium ban of Mourinho while Wenger (who said similar things) received not a caution and Gabriel had his red card rescinded despite kicking out at Costa; the nonsensical sensationalism in the press about Mourinho having “lost the dressing room” and being on the verge of a sacking.

A confident Mourinho and a confident Chelsea would have been able to turn these things to their advantage. But the ship was already struggling in heavy seas and every new event seemed like an additional blow.

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5. The turning point?

I think the turning point came during the international break after the Southampton game. Mourinho took the unusual step of going to watch a number of his players in international games; Costa came out and admitted he had come back for pre-season overweight and was intent on getting his fitness right and other players also made statements of intent.

Mourinho’s press conference before the Villa game was the first sign I saw that a rally point had been reached. He was the calmest he had been all season. He made it clear that he and the squad had accepted that they weren’t playing well and that confidence was low. So they were going back to basics – tactical discipline, effort and work rate, solid structure – “tactical solidarity” to use his phrase. Rather than struggling to replicate what they did last season they were going to focus on what they could do now which meant playing in a way that “compensates” (Mourinho’s word) for the lack of form. They were going to graft their way back to it.

Psychologically this was very interesting. When you have high expectations of yourself and can’t meet them it is debilitating. I think the solution Mourinho found was to change the expectations – they are no longer trying to replicate last season, they are now trying to graft their way up the table and set a new foundation for themselves. If they can do that, confidence will start to return and the flair will follow, at least that seems to be the idea.

6. Where are Chelsea now?

In the four games since then, Chelsea have beaten Villa 2-0, drawn 0-0 in Kiev (a game they shaded but where a draw was an acceptable and creditable result), lost 2-1 at West Ham (an even game despite Matic being sent off before half time) and drawn 1-1 at Stoke before going out on penalties (a game that Chelsea would have won if not for a brilliant performance by Butland). The way the team has played has been solid, intelligent commentators have remarked that the players are “playing for the manager” and there is a visible improvement in performance if not results. I think Chelsea are on the way back now.

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They are out of the title race, five defeats is too many. But I don’t think that’s what matters to the squad right now. They just want to get their level back and they are going to graft their way there. That’s what I see. There is still a way to go and the train could still derail. But as a Chelsea fan I feel a positive momentum for the first time this season.

7. Future prospects

I’m a realist when it comes to FPL. I wouldn’t advise anyone to bring Chelsea players in just yet. But I would advise a careful watching brief. The tide seems to be turning and if it continues to do so then there will come a time when Chelsea assets will have to be looked at in a different light. In my view a Chelsea defender (Begovic, Azpilicueta, Zouma) is worth holding even now if you have them. And I fully expect to be bringing Hazard into my team by Gameweek 15 at the latest. Chelsea begin a very good fixture run then and provided the train hasn’t derailed in the meantime I think we can anticipate a different Chelsea, with more of the flair and dominance most would expect, to be starting to appear.

As a last comment, I think that Mourinho may well look back at the first half of this season later on and see it to be the most important period of his career. If he can bring the team through, which I think he will, and learn the lessons of his own mistakes, which I also think he will, it will make him a more complete manager. And that should be good for Chelsea too.

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6 thoughts on “Guest post: Whither Chelsea?

  1. My Dearest Ruth,

    I can understand and empathise with your pain, and indeed applaud your clear-eyed view of where things have gone wrong.

    But … I am afraid that you do not go even close to far enough. Mourinho sent out the wrong messages to the entire squad at the end of your marvellous Championship Season, with the result that ALMOST ALL of the squad came back overweight AND out of condition, except Falcao and Willian. This was firstly, unprofessional, and indeed stupid by Mourinho – but also, the players. Not one player showed the necessary gumption – with the possible exception of Willian – or leadership, when it came to their own fitness and readiness.

    John Terry, being old, needs a special regime pre-Season. He is also the club captain. Where were the ‘phone calls round, the tweets, the emails? I see that Ivanovic has got the most stick – but to me he has been one of your better players(Yes, I mean that.), and has got to some sort of fitness quicker than the rest, certainly than Hazard, Pedro or Terry. Or the miserable Fabregas.

    I watched your first match, against Swansea, in the happy company of Pepin, Milanista and eventually Isacki. As you know, I picked a full hand of Chelsea, including, to general merriment, Falcao. Well, in the end, I was glad that he only came on for a few minutes – the general performance was such a shambles, it is hard to see that he would have got any service. I realised that I had made an awful FPL mistake in going full Chelsea …

    I can understand the players joy at being Champions again. What I can’t understand is the collective collapse of self-discipline, and indeed the extent of that collapse. So to me, it shows only one thing – your dressing room is poisoned beyond repair, and a major clear out is necessary.

    Mourinho, again to me, is deeply implicated, and is therefore not the man to complete such a clear-out.But perhaps this is a question for another day.

    Anyway, I hope that something good comes out of this, but for the moment, it is hard to see what. Sorry to be so harsh on your club – but I feel that the players need to show some respect for the debt that they owe to all of you.

    Your Devoted Reader,
    Michael

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    • Ruth_NZ says:

      Thanks. I always respect your views because they aren’t copied from someone else.

      You are right that Costa wasn’t the only one to return unfit. I saw the first pre-season game in 2014/15, saw that JT already looked as fit as a butchers’ dog and “knew” we would have a great season. Far from that this time. But in JT’s case that was from voluntary extra training he does (mainly repetitions in the sandpit at Cobham) and as far as I know he still does that.

      It is certainly true that the wrong messages were sent out by the long holiday and that complacency took over – it stretched right from the board to the players. But I don’t agree that the dressing room is “poisoned beyond repair”, nor that Mourinho is not the man to sort things out. I think he knows he is implicated. I think he’s big enough to learn from it too. That’s why I said it could be the most valuable spell in his career.

      As for “the extent of the collapse”, well, you know how it is. You slip a bit thinking it can easily be recovered. Then (sometimes) you find yourself on a slippery slope and not only can’t you easily recover, you can’t stop the slide. That’s why I have spent the season looking for Chelsea to reach the rally point.

      I’m not a glory hunter. To be perfectly honest I won’t mind Chelsea having a (relatively) poor season if it means losing a few Chinese fans (the ones whose main reason to be at Stamford Bridge seems to be to take selfies). All I want is a team with bravery and guts (which I am beginning to see now). That, indeed, is owed to the shirt. Always has been.

      PS I think your reference to “going full Chelsea” is an allusion to the film “Tropic Thunder”? If not it should be. 🙂

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  2. Albertini says:

    Thanks Ruth, a very enjoyable read and, as a great Mourinho and Chelsea’s fan (being Portuguese and a huge Porto supporter, it couldn’t be the other way), I’m fully convinced he’s the man to turn the things around. It’ll be difficult as the team (the players, the manager and his staff) isn’t used to be in this position and confidence is pretty low but with a few good results that will no doubt come all might change and a top-4 place is still very much achievable.

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  3. pdrmaiamaia says:

    Nice write up, Ruth.
    But i think everyone is missing a point here, the 3 year rule.

    3 months at Benfica
    6 months at Leiria
    2.5 years at Porto
    3 years and 2 months at Chelsea
    2 years at Inter
    3 years at Real Madrid
    2 years and 3 months at Chelsea

    In every club that he started after full 2 years its gone wrong.
    There is a pattern here, and looks like he will do it again.
    If he and Chelsea (The Fans and The Russian Boss) can arrange a way out, then both should win.

    It’s time for Chelsea and Jose to know how to create a dynasty.

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  4. Ruth_NZ says:

    Doosra started with “I can understand and empathise with your pain…”

    The strangest thing is that I didn’t find Chelsea’s season painful. Not until today which was the most agonising defeat for me since the 2008 CL Final.

    If I were the club I’d accept that the season is a train wreck and ask Jose to start building a team for next year and the future. I’d make a statement saying that his future is with Chelsea irrespective of finishing position this season and I’d allow him to spend big next summer.

    But that’s me. Whether the club will do anything like that is another matter.

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