It’s rare for a league leader’s loss to team who are fighting against relegation to feel so predictable. But then this isn’t the first time that Chelsea have lost to team in the bottom half of the league this season. They lost to Aston Villa three weeks ago!
And this certainly isn’t the first time that Chelsea have seriously struggled to create chances against supposed lesser opposition.
For struggle has been a theme of this campaign for the London club. If they were to win the league this year, it was always going to be more through persistence than quality. Results like those against Arsenal have been the exception, it’s bashing their proverbial heads against the walls of Palace-like defences that has proved the rule.
Chelsea are a team with a single game plan: counter-attack. And when they are allowed to instigate their plan, it tends to work extremely well. For instance, their performance away to Manchester City was widely eulogised as the best of the season. The balance between attack and defence was perfectly poised. Mourinho had struck gold.
The problem with this game plan is that it is reactive. Your ability to initiate it is dependent on the opposition. What this essentially means is, you can’t counter-attack teams that don’t attack you first. And a lot of teams don’t want to attack Chelsea first.
It’s odd for a team as dominant as Chelsea are to have a de facto tactic that is reactionary. However, what’s really bizarre is for the team to use this tactic, and this tactic alone.
Crystal Palace knew what Chelsea were going to do and were able to counter act it easily. As Damien Delaney explained after the game: “The big teams like to dominate possession and pin you in, and it can be difficult, but Chelsea are the opposite, they’re a counter-attacking team.
“We thought if we sat off, they would as well and it becomes “who blinks first”. We told ourselves: Don’t get caught and don’t over-commit. They got frustrated. Once we got in front, we knew we could do it.”
And Crystal Palace were not the first side to frustrate Chelsea in such a way. West Brom and West Ham both got draws at Stamford Bridge by employing similar tactics. And Stoke, Aston Villa and Newcastle got home wins in this manner.
But these upsets don’t even tell the whole story. The majority of Chelsea’s wins this season have been narrow and only come after a monumental struggle. The results have largely managed to mask the toil beneath.
Mourinho is clearly aware of this problem, but apparently unwilling to accept any responsibility for it. In his post-match press conference following defeat at Selhurst Park, the Chelsea manager lavished praise on his defence, but accused his forward players of lacking the necessary ‘balls’.
The comments were strange. A lack of ‘balls’ is not normally something that would worry you in attacking players. Defenders need ‘balls’. Attacking players need guile.
It’s creativity that was lacking against Crystal Palace. And although Mourinho seems unwilling to accept it, this comes under a managers remit too.
Jose Mourinho’s insistence on increasing the work-rate of his more creative players was initially hard to understand. This wasn’t their job, after all. Their job was to invent.
However, after instilling his pure brand of counter-attacking football following Chelsea’s League Cup defeat to Sunderland, this once seemingly mad insistence began to make a lot of sense.
And the benefits have been remarkable. Even with the loss to Palace included, Chelsea have only conceded five league goals in 2014. And they’ve also managed to become more dangerous in attack at the same, with the six goals scored against Arsenal being case and point.
However, the recent succession of defeats against Villa and Crystal Palace would appear to highlight the folly of insisting so heavily on this single attribute. While the concentration on work rate may have improved Chelsea on the whole, hard work is not enough to break teams down who work just as hard as you.
Against such teams, something else is needed. Something special.
The player most proficient at breaking down a deep defence, Oscar, was bizarrely left on the bench against Crystal Palace. And when he came on at half-time, it was to replace the next best man for the job: David Luiz. Chelsea had a player in Juan Mata who was more adept than both at creating chances when space is at a premium, but Mourinho thought him surplus to requirements.
While it’s clear that players such as Willian, and the newly-recruited Mohammed Salah, are better suited to the manager’s preferred counter-attacking style, the wisdom of letting Mata go, and what would appear to be David Luiz’s imminent departure this summer, must be questioned in light of Chelsea’s consistent struggles to break down teams that defend deep.
Chelsea are a team in desperate need of a plan B. And bringing on Demba Ba with 20 minutes to go and kicking the ball at him is just lazy management. Mourinho’s instance on playing a style of football that has consistently proved itself to be ineffective against lesser opposition is at best obstinate, and at worst, plain idiocy.
Chelsea’s run-in, what many touted as giving them the advantage in the title race, now appears daunting. Stoke, Sunderland and Norwich are all likely to implement a similar game plan as Crystal Palace when they visit Stamford Bridge.
Mourinho should need no further proof that his preferred style of play is unsuccessful against such opponents. However, to change now would perhaps be asking too much of a man of such hubris.
In the end, it may all come down to ‘who blinks first’.