Despite Jose Mourinho’s insistences otherwise, the Premier League title race may not be over just yet for Chelsea.
But succumbing to a 3-1 loss at the hands of PSG in the Champions League via an incredibly uncharacteristic defensive capitulation, just a matter of days after recording a surprise 1-0 defeat to Crystal Palace in the league, it appears that the West Londoners have lost their form and confidence at the worst possible time of the season.
Looking back to where Chelsea’s campaign was won and lost, and their title fate resultantly decided, many will immediately point to the fixture at Selhurst Park.
The Blues hadn’t lost in their 16 previous Premier League fixtures, and the week before taking on Crystal Palace, they crushed Arsenal at home by a six-goal margin. Furthermore, of all the top flight’s title contenders, if there’s one capable of dealing with the physical and aggressive pressures a Tony Pulis side customarily offers, it’s undoubtedly Jose Mourinho’s mechanically pragmatic Chelsea. With that in mind, defeat in South East London was never on the cards, but once again the Premier League proved that anybody can beat anybody at any time of the season, without fair warning.
Those Chelsea fans who would shirk that theory, would in turn suggest the defeat to Aston Villa a fortnight previous had been the key, another 1-0 result in the opposition’s favour, albeit this one decided by some controversial refereeing rather than the inadequacies of a Blues away performance outright.
But personally, my belief is that two fixtures much earlier in the season, through Jose Mourinho’s misjudgement, are the wrong results that have eventually caught up with Chelsea, namely stalemate draws to Manchester United and Tottenham in August and September respectively.
Jose Mourinho has never turned his nose up at an away draw, and set the benchmark for the rest of the campaign in regards to Chelsea’s heavyweight encounters by administering perhaps the most uneventful match of the entire Premier League season – a scoreless draw at Old Trafford.
Hoping to reap the benefits of the element of surprise and added work-rate in front of midfield, the Portuguese elected to field Andre Schurrle up front, a tactical misnomer that not only failed against the Red Devils but also PSG in mid-week. From the announcement of the team sheets, placing a midfielder as Chelsea’s only striker suggested the Blues boss was more than happy to come away from Manchester with a point in his pocket. Anything else was a welcome bonus.
At the time it was understandable; Manchester United were an unknown entity under David Moyes, and had previously demolished Swansea City 4-1 at the Liberty Stadium on the opening day of the season. Who knew then that the debasing effect of Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement would leave the English champions facing the daunting prospect of not qualifying for the Europa League and recording the worst Premier League title defence of all time with just five games of Moyes’ inaugural Old Trafford campaign remaining?
But just two weeks later, United had lost 1-0 to Liverpool and 4-1 to Manchester City, gifting three points to two clubs that are now Chelsea’s only genuine contenders for the English crown. Had the Blues pushed a little harder at Old Trafford, had Jose Mourinho set them up with a greater conviction for victory, then perhaps the title odds would still be in their favour.
Likewise, back in September, Chelsea visited White Hart Lane and once again Jose Mourinho was prepared to hold out for a stalemate, perhaps best illustrated by his decision to field tough-tackling midfielder Ramires on the right wing.
In its context, the 1-1 result was welcomed as positive one for the West Londoners. Tottenham had just splashed out £110million on a host of summer signings, and how dangerous that made the Lilywhites to the Premier League’s established order was yet to be decided. They had won four of five prior to the Chelsea clash under Andre Villas-Boas, and had conceded just once in a 1-0 defeat to Arsenal. Furthermore, widely billed as a bad-blood contest between Mourinho and his former protégé, for psychological reasons this was not match the Blues boss was prepared to lose.
But once again, knowing what we do now about Spurs – the inadequacies of their summer transfer policy, the intrinsic flaws of AVB’s tactical philosophy, their regular capitulations against the Premier League’s bigger sides – this has to be viewed as two points lost, rather than a solitary one gained.
A week later, Tottenham lost 3-0 to West Ham at White Hart Lane. Two months later, they lost 6-0 to Manchester City at the Eithad, and by mid-December, the Portuguese had lost his job after a 5-0 home defeat at the hands of Liverpool.
In terms of points gained at the Lane, Tottenham have taken just four from top five opposition this season; a point against Chelsea and a victory over Everton, whilst their aggregate score against Liverpool and Manchester City at home is 1-10. Likewise, Manchester United have gained only eight points at home from top half clubs this term, including draws with Chelsea and Southampton and wins against Arsenal and Stoke. Liverpool won 3-0 at Old Trafford in March, and City repeated the score line a week later.
Once again, it’s important to highlight the results in their context, as many Chelsea fans will be quick to point out.
But there’s no doubt that even as early as the opening weeks of the season, both Spurs and United were there for the taking, had Chelsea taken the attacking initiative and exposed their many inevitable flaws.
Should the Blues fail to claim the Premier League title this season, Jose Mourinho has already has his excuse pre-made; he’s spent much of the campaign moaning about his side’s lack of firepower, with the tagline of an ageing and lacklustre strike-force receiving even more lip service following their recent defeats to Crystal Palace and PSG.
That’s undoubtedly influenced Chelsea’s season, but in regards to the Spurs and United results specifically, you have to question Jose Mourinho’s customary pragmatism of settling for a point away from home.
Brendan Rodgers and Manuel Pellegrini viewed the matches as six pointers, and entering them with more risk and greater confidence in their attacking prowess, came away with just deserves from their away visits to Old Trafford and White Hart Lane. Mourinho on the other hand, viewed them as one-pointers, as banana-skin affairs where the cost of defeat outweighed the rewards of victory.
It’s an away day philosophy that in many ways the Chelsea gaffer has centred his career around, and in terms of defeats, you can’t argue against the Special One’s track record in the big matches.
But on these two occasions, against sixth-place Manchester United and seventh-place Tottenham, Mourinho’s most tried and tested trick has been misused – these weren’t fixtures Chelsea couldn’t afford to lose, they were matches the Blues couldn’t afford to not win.