Given a widely presumed desire for thrilling football, there was no small irony in the fact that when the Champions League fell Chelsea’s way it came via defensive cautious football. Similarly Roman Abramovich’s quest to regain pre-eminance in the Premier League, has come via the re-employment of his most successful but pragmatic coach. Mourinho at Chelsea mk2 took a year longer than mk1 to return the top prize but fuelled by two of the most well targeted and specifically relevant signings in recent league history, Costa and Fabregas, they steamrollered the league for half a year then coasted or limped to the title, an opinion split depending on your affiliation, and thus triumphed with minimal fuss or challenge.
Any team that completes a season having lost four games in total across major competitions deserves a ton of respect, however they achieved it. Even allowing for there being a slew of meaningless fixtures in each of these numbers, by way of comparison, Barcelona lost six, Real Madrid nine and Bayern Munich eight. And that’s the table that Chelsea are endeavouring to dine at. They had thought that they were booked up and being shown to their seats before they found Paris Saint Germain usurping them at the death and their Champions League hopes vanished. In that very same movement, the remaining hopes and challenges of Arsenal and Man City, by this point adrift and praying for fatigue were extinguished.
Why was it so easy?
Chelsea’s season was so obviously partitioned into two halves as to be quite strange.
After 12 games, they were unbeaten and flying based on extremely high conversion of both their overall shots and shots on target (16% and 41%). Their general shot rates were good if not spectacular (15.3 shots and 6.1 shots on targets per game) and their defence wasn’t giving up much at all (10.1 Sh, 3.1 SoT). All the good stuff on the front end revolved around the burgeoning bromance between Fabregas and Costa. Rarely has such kinship flowered so instantly. So much so that the phenomenal rates they were achieving were highly unlikely to sustain; and so it showed:
Once this combination cooled the defence started to dominate the storyline. After 19 games, this Chelsea team was now conceding an average of 2.5 shots on target per game and 0.7 goals per game: the lowest and second lowest recorded totals of the entire Enlightened Stat era (2009-10 onwards). The early promise of this being one of the great attacking teams had regressed to something altogether more Mourinho-like; a defensive and ruthless, strong team.
And that was how the team continued throughout the rest of the season. Between February and clinching the title against Palace in May, they won nine matches and drew three. Of these wins, eight were by a single goal margin, the exception a 3-1 victory at Leicester. The numbers that drove these efficient results were underwhelming, at least with regard a Championship contending team: a 53% shot ratio and 56% on target ratio. Chelsea dropped from being a 16 shot per game team at the halfway point to a shade over 13. The defense, despite becoming the main focus, also gave up more shots, nearly 12 per game, up from ten. But the key lay in the save percentage during this latter period, a super high 76%. The shots Chelsea were conceding were seemingly less dangerous due to their extremely low block defense.
I made an attempt to look at the numbers Chelsea’s defense created by way of looking for similarities, and the primary takeaway was how similar each defenseman looked; Azpilicueta and Ivanovic profiled almost identically to Terry and Cahill (or Zouma). In functional terms, Chelsea played much of last season with a wall of Pulis-esque centre backs spread across the back four. That’s not to criticise, it’s highly effective and may well have been a reaction to the chastening defeat at Tottenham, the last meaningful league fixture they lost all season way back on New Year’s Day.
In fact Chelsea project fairly similarly for both Mourinho’s returning seasons. The primary differences in the outcomes is that in 2013-14 both Man City and Liverpool had an incredibly positive performance skew that they and indeed no other rival managed to reproduce in 2014-15. In fact, in terms of over-accrual of points in comparison to underlying metrics, Chelsea were the team in a challenging position that skewed most positively. By my reckoning only Swansea exceeded this degree of over-achievement. Despite this, the real increase in points year-on-year was only five, but significantly it was more than enough with Arsenal, City and Liverpool declining by four, seven and 22 points respectively.
Ben Pugsley noted early on how many minutes Chelsea’s core played in 2014-15. Mourinho’s use of a small squad and a lack of rotation seemingly borne of a lack of trust in his replacements lead to the majority of the team playing a high percentage of minutes. The whirling dervish Hazard apart, energy levels dipping may well have contributed to the change in tactics and performance levels after the New Year. It is with this in mind that it is surprising that Chelsea haven’t strengthened more obviously in the off season. Clearly Chelsea were extremely fortunate to suffer a lack of key injuries last season, and it seems a risky bet to rely on that happening again. Very few teams have adequate cover for their better players, that’s the nature of a natural pecking order, but you could reasonably expect that Chelsea would be better served than most, and well, they aren’t. In particular the drop in quality behind Costa, Hazard and Matic is pronounced- their fitness is essential- and centre back is a a little light. Can John Terry complete a whole season again at 34/35? The pursuit of Stones at least recognises this issue.
Falcao for Drogba is a simple exchange of seats on the bench as is Begovic for Cech. Chelsea’s first team is undoubtedly strong enough to compete with anyone but it is surprising that few moves have been made to improve and cover. When considering the club’s extreme wealth and volume of younger players on the books, it seems an oversight to not have sufficiently trusted options in the squad. It remains to be seen if Bertrand Traore is considered by the club hierarchy as forward enough to play a part but he is thought to be as close as anyone to the first team squad and was well rated in Holland last year. I had hoped Patrick Bamford might have been given a role but a bus across town to Palace will likely do him no harm. And the strange to-ing and fro-ing of long term bench men or loanees Salah, Filipe Luis, Moses and Cuadrado offers little assistance either.
Bookmakers have chalked Chelsea up as favourites for the title- no surprise that’s almost a default position for the previous year’s league winner, and have Man City and Arsenal priced closely in behind. I wrote on Man Utd earlier in the week and feel they are overrated as contenders, not necessarily a view shared widely, but to me the title is a clear and close three way battle. Chelsea’s ability to avoid defeat served them extremely well last year, but on a number of occasions- most notably i’m thinking Hull (A)- they looked unconvincing yet found a way. That’s par for the course and straight out of the Ferguson playbook and we can be confident in Mourinho’s ability to extract the maximum from his squad.
The Champions League could well be decisive. I felt Mourinho prioritised it in 2013-14 with the league still winnable and with another title safe in his back pocket and the bigger prize no doubt high on the owner’s priority list, it will be interesting to see how they approach the latter stages, if they reach them as is expected.
Generally though, we know exactly what we’re getting with Chelsea: stoic, winning football sprinkled with an occasional smattering of brilliance. The seemingly indestructable Hazard- still just 24- continues to light up the league, nobody carries the ball so frequently or effectively and both Oscar and Willian are super efficient and talented cogs in a well drilled midfield. We can see here in Ben Torvaney’s age matrix from last season that the core of the first team is within their peak age and likely to stay together over the coming seasons too:
Time and again their success has been built on firm defensive foundations, although a look at Mourinho’s full seasons reveals an intriguing little quirk:
One season apart, remarkable consistency with goals for and a continual increase in goals against. With an 11 year spread on this chart, one wonders if that represents a change in defensive effectiveness against ever quicker, fitter and more tactically drilled oppositions; or it may simply be one of those things. Room for further investigation… Another one for the to-do list!
Chelsea will no doubt contend. Since Abramovich took control of the club, they have finished in the top three in all but one season (2011-12) and have on average lost only ~5 games per season. Their position at the head table in the Premier League is rock solid and they have managed to negotiate the squad issues that blighted their low period and emerge on the other side as a strong unit once more. Whether that is enough for the title again remains to be seen, but if anyone finishes ahead of them, it will be with a trophy to collect.
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