Indeed, it’s difficult to contest the credentials of a side that boast one of the strongest starting XIs, one of the most complete squads and one of the best managers in world football, currently enjoying a six point lead at the division’s summit. Letting Chelsea’s grip slip at this point would constitute by far the biggest failure of Jose Mourinho’s career.
The debate has shifted away from whether the west Londoners will bag their first title since 2010 and onto whether they can do it undefeated, emulating Arsenal’s thus far unparalleled achievement over a decade ago.
Yet, there’s something not quite right about Chelsea, and it manifested last weekend during a disappointing scoreless draw with Sunderland – right now, they’re lacking the killer instinct of champions.
Of course, one performance doesn’t define a season and Chelsea have a habit of throwing wobblers against the Black Cats. Last season, it took a chaotic 4-3 at the Stadium of Light for the Blues to grab a win, whilst the reverse fixture saw Jose Mourinho’s incredible 77-game undefeated streak at Stamford Bridge come to an end.
Overall, Sunderland have beaten Chelsea 30 times at home in the Premier League era, a 50% win percentage, compared to the Blues’ twenty wins and ten draws – including the one on Saturday. The week before, the Blues completely dominated West Bromwich Albion in what was unquestionably their strongest 45 minutes of the season and also knocked Schalke for five in the Champions League, so one could easily put down the draw to a freakish, bogey-team occurrence.
But there’s other evidence than simply the Sunderland result. Take Chelsea’s defensive record for example. Few will dispute they possess one of the most talented and best organised back fives in the league, but they’ve actually conceded eleven in thirteen this season whilst Bayern Munich and Juventus, the leaders of the Bundesliga and Serie A, have conceded just thrice and five times respectively. Admittedly, the Premier League is considerably more competitive.
Likewise, however, Chelsea boast just four clean sheets – the same amount as this time last season, when the Blues eventually finished in third – which is actually matched or bettered by seven Premier League sides. Hardly exemplary.
That figure should be six and Chelsea’s lead in the Premier League should be four points more – but the west Londoners threw away vital victories against Manchester City and Manchester United, drawing both, in the space of five fixtures.
Indeed, Chelsea enjoyed a 1-0 lead over the ten-man Citizens at the Etihad, but Andre Schurrle’s strike changed the entire dynamic of the title clash – Chelsea’s possession went from 55% in the ten minutes prior to just 26% in the same period after – and some sloppy defending allowed club icon Frank Lampard to make a trademark late run into the box to land an 85th minute equaliser.
Then, against Manchester United in October, the Blues were seconds away from an integral 1-0 win, until Branislav Ivanovic’s stoppage time sending off and disorganised marking at the subsequent free kick resulted in Robin van Persie levelling in the 94th minute. Overall, Chelsea have taken the lead nine times this season but only six instances have resulted in wins and only four in clean sheets.
Similarly, despite boasting the healthiest goals for column in the Premier League, 30, only against Burnley and West Brom have Chelsea genuinely wrapped up a result at half time by way of a two-goal margin – the majority of their goals have come in the second half after a rather tense first 45 minutes.
Deciding every fixture by the interval certainly isn’t compulsory to win the league title, but compare that to Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’ for example, who often boasted three or four goal leads within half an hour.
Manchester United weren’t particularly famed for that either but they won 13 Premier League titles. Consider how Sir Alex Ferguson’s United would have approached the final minutes against Sunderland last weekend however – relentless, impenetrable pressure to find the winning goal, increasing as the final whistle drew closer. Chelsea, on the other hand, appeared to lose confidence going forward as the game dragged on, with Sunderland eventually enjoying the lion’s share of the chances.
Does that mean Chelsea won’t win the title come May-time? At this point, it’s hard to think of a Premier League side that can beat them, purely due to the fact the Blues are yet to show any exploitable weaknesses. They’re a very complete, well-rounded package.
But if the west Londoners fail to find their cutting edge in the coming weeks, if there are too many lapsed performances parallel to the Sunderland one, unnecessary points will inevitably be lost and suddenly the pressure from Manchester City, Manchester United and Southampton becomes a lot more serious.
At which point, it will be a completely different, less predictable title race.