The Blues have fashioned a turn-around of sorts, with two games under their belt without having lost a game. More importantly, they haven’t conceded a single goal either. Whether that’s down to Chelsea having faced sides that boast less than fierce attacks, or Mourinho’s men finally having rediscovered their defensive genius is hard to say. After all, zero goals conceded sounds exactly the same either way.
Chelsea’s faithful at Stamford Bridge, and elsewhere, have resolved the mystery of their team’s miserable start to the 2015-16 campaign: in a word, the big Serbian Branislav Ivanovic. As coincidence would have it, the beleaguered defender’s injury during the international break has forced Mourinho’s hand into looking for a replacement for the Serb, on his bench no less.
With Azpilicueta, cursed to play out of position forever, now running the show on the right flank and Baba Rahman and/or Kurt Zouma filling in for Ivanovic, Chelsea suddenly seem to be an improved proposition at the back. The Blues seem to have found a renewed sense of self-belief at the back, and that has washed over the whole team like a warm embrace.
All of which is welcome news to Chelsea fans, but is essentially just a case of the team papering over the cracks and pretending the smooth-looking facade is the equivalent of the gut renovation Chelsea really needed. Ivanovic’s absence is the reason for the team’s apparent turning of a corner, but not for why most observers think it is.
In a simple world, replacing Chelsea’s worst performer with a new signing or a reasonably talented young star explains it all. But in the complex world of professional sport and fragile mental states desperately craving validation, perception is more important than reality. Ivanovic’s absence from the team has given the rest of the squad reason to believe their weakest link is now out of commission and that they can continue as a more cohesive unit.
But that analysis betrays the fact that Chelsea have performed terribly as a team. Diego Costa arrived fatter than he expected, and his inability to perform at his best has seen him lash out and receive unhelpful suspensions. Eden Hazard seems to have his heart and mind set on something else: perhaps a transfer to another club might be on the horizon. That coincided with a dip in form bad enough to see him on the sidelines, thanks to a Mourinho who isn’t afraid to bench his best player from last season.
In midfield, Cesc Fabregas’ inability to track back has finally been figured out by the rest of the Premier League. The Spaniard may still occasionally string together an inch-perfect pass, but leaving Chelsea’s back-line exposed has resulted in a porosity not expected of a top-4 contender, and defending league champions. Matic’s failures and subsequent humiliation have been much publicized, but the Blues simply don’t have someone of the caliber to step right in and take his spot.
Cahill, Terry and Zouma’s collective deer in the headlights impression has been behind the fall of Stamford Bridge. Once Chelsea’s fortress, the place reeks of failure and imbues even the smallest team with the self-confidence that it can leave with at least a point. Throw in a Mourinho unfamiliar with this kind of a situation, and it spells a Chelsea side staring in bewilderment at their own fading glory.
The real reasons for Chelsea’s decline are two-fold: Mourinho killed the golden goose last season. Feeding his team a diet high in siege mentality, got his men to perform like their lives depended on it. Winning the league after five years was rewarding for the Blues but also depleted the us-against-the-world shot of adrenaline that had shaped their title-winning campaign.
Chelsea also put profit before player, in signing up for a pointless tour of Thailand just a few days after the draining experience of winning a league. Having played their last Premier League game on the 24th of May 2015, the Blues were lining up against some of the best Thailand had to offer.
Throw in a game played in Sydney, as well as the International Champions Cup in North America in July and the Community Shield game with Arsenal just days before the start of the 2015-16 League campaign, and the Blues played across 4 different continents . with not much of a gap in between.
Mental exhaustion coupled with physical exhaustion, with virtually no infusion of fresh blood into the first team, was always going to be a fatal blow to the Blues hopes’ of retaining the league title. Ivanovic may have been the worst player in the side this season, but his absence from the team, is not the real reason the Blues look a much-improved side in recent days.
But, paradoxically, that mistaken belief might just be what it takes for the Blues to continue their recovery.