Much like his table-topping Chelsea side, attempting to identify Jose Mourinho’s predominant weakness is a near-fruitless task.
Indeed, boasting two Champions Leagues and domestic titles in Portugal, Spain, Italy and England at just 51 years of age, the Chelsea manager’s record of continuous success throughout Europe – not to mention the self-awarded moniker of ‘The Special One’ – speaks for itself.
Combine that with an arrogant streak that continually infuriates his dugout counterparts, the ability to turn any press conference into a media frenzy without warning and an exceptional record in important games – particularly, Champions League double-leggers – and many will argue you’re looking at one of the best managers currently in club football, a future accompanier of Sir Alex Ferguson, Bob Paisley, Helenio Herrera and Ottmar Hitzfeld in the annals of football history.
Yet, if there’s one weakness that’s crept into the Portuguese’s otherwise world-class skills set this season, it’s the ineffectiveness in which he’s rotated his Chelsea squad.
The phrase ‘don’t fix what isn’t broken’ certainly comes to mind, but that mantra and the Blues’ subsequent dependency on a core group of players – particularly, John Terry, Branislav Ivanovic, Eden Hazard, Cesar Azpilicueta, Oscar, Cesc Fabregas, Gary Cahill, Nemanja Matic and Deigo Costa, who have all made 17 Premier League starts (out of a possible 21) already this season – has become a worryingly dogmatic one.
At the start of December, Chelsea appeared to be Premier League champions-elect, amassing a six-point lead at the table’s summit and seemingly unstoppable amid a rich vein of form. Indeed, why make wholesale changes to a side continually dominating opponents in all departments with considerable ease?
Yet, the chaotic scheduling of the winter period has undoubtedly taken its toll, perhaps a lingering factor behind the Blues’ shock 5-3 defeat to Tottenham on New Year’s Day and disturbingly evident as they limped their way past an energetic Newcastle side last weekend. Matic, who has missed just one Premier League game thus far through suspension, looked particularly jaded against the Magpies.
Of course, Manchester United’s Ferguson remains the undisputed master of the art of rotation. He’d leave players out for weeks at a time – on occasion, even months – but ensured the highest commitment and quality of performance when finally calling upon them. It was a combination of tactical awareness, world-class man-management and confidence in his players that made the Scot so effective in this regard, picking the right man for the right occasion, and providing the right kind of motivation, with impeccable consistency.
Mourinho, at least this season, hasn’t enjoyed such luck. Rather, he’s been overly critical of Chelsea’s fringe players, expressing his disappointment at their performances following a 2-1 win over Shrewsbury in the Capital One Cup’s fourth round, whilst subtly-yet-deliberately praising Willian – another member of Chelsea’s near-ever-present mob – for Chelsea’s dependency on him during a 3-0 win against Watford in the FA Cup.
The result has been a reliance upon key players against opposition that the rest of the squad should be able to cope with. Terry, Matic, Fabregas and Hazard all featured against Derby County in the League Cup in December for example, despite all starting against Hull City three days prior and Stoke City three days following. Likewise the Chelsea side that beat Sporting Lisbon 3-1 in a Champions League fixture that had no bearing on either’s standing in Group G, the Blues already through and the Portuguese side already eliminated, included Cahill, Matic, Azpilicueta, Fabregas and Diego Costa.
By the end of the season, assuming Chelsea progress on all fronts as expected, the majority these players will have made in excess of 50 starts.
Chelsea recruit players knowing such physical demands will be placed on them; not only do the Blues avoid signing players with poor injury records, but they also target those boasting great natural athleticism and durability – perhaps something Arsenal, the Premier League’s home of unparalleled injury crises, should more frequently bear in mind. But it’s the freshness of Chelsea’s players during the winter months, rather than their health or fitness, that’s become the predominant issue as a consequence of poor rotation.
The Blues’ depth is arguably the best in the Premier League, perhaps only exceeded by Manchester City’s, so why isn’t Mourinho taking full advantage? Loic Remy for example, bagged 14 goals in the Premier League last season, Andre Schurrle just won the World Cup with Germany, even providing a tournament-winning assist, Filippe Luis was arguably the best full-back in Europe last term, as part of an Atletico side that won La Liga and made it to the Champions League final, and Ramires has been at the heart of Chelsea’s midfield for years. In total, they’ve accumulated just 13 league starts between them this season.
In my opinion, it’s a question of confidence from both manager and player. For whatever reason, Mourinho is struggling to trust the peripheries of his squad and in return, it seems that some are becoming unhappy with their bit-part roles. Schurrle’s performances this season particularly, have suggested a player struggling for motivation.
Indeed, there aren’t many aspects of management Mourinho hasn’t already mastered, but maintaining his confidence in those that play the least and perhaps more importantly, ensuring their own self-confidence, could well be one of them. If the Blues are to claim more than one trophy this season, it’s something ‘The Special One’ must quickly improve upon.