Just when this Premier League title palaver seemed to be getting a bit too easy for table-toppers Chelsea, two poor results on the road, a draw to Southampton and a shock 5-3 defeat to Tottenham, have knocked a rather sizable chunk out of their bid for the English crown.
Far from the six point lead enjoyed a few weeks ago, their advantage over reigning champions Manchester City has now whittled down to alphabetical order alone, with both clubs, almost miraculously, level across the columns.
The Blues remain near-impenetrable at Stamford Bridge, taking maximum points from nine fixtures and conceding only thrice, but does Jose Mourinho to re-think his away day strategy?
Of course, it’s important not to overreact to a single result and in truth, the White Hart Lane affair was a bit of an anomaly. It was the first time Chelsea have conceded five goals under Mourinho’s leadership and Tottenham’s first win over the west Londoners since 2010, which pretty much says it all.
The Blues were the better side for the first hour, barring some uncharacteristically woeful defending, and found themselves facing the Lilywhites at the worst possible time, currently enjoying a run of five wins and no defeats in their last seven fixtures across all competitions. It’s not often Chelsea fail to win despite scoring three goals, and if that match were replayed another 99 times, it would unlikely throw up a carbon-copy 5-3 scoreline.
Yet, the pattern of Chelsea’s away results cannot be so easily dismissed. They’re still second in the Premier League’s away table, their 19 points only bettered by Manchester City, but are now amid a run of two wins, two draws and two losses in their last six outings on the road, including, rather tellingly, their own two competitive defeats of the season so far.
The Southampton result, a stale 1-1, I found particularly troubling. There are far worse outcomes than a point apiece at St Mary’s; the Saints are currently third in the Premier League’s home table and their defensive record, conceding 15 in 20, is only surpassed by City and the Blues. Arsenal for example, who travelled to the south coast just three days later, found themselves at the end of a 2-0 defeat.
Yet, it was a match Chelsea failed to grab by the scruff of the neck, scoring with what eventually constituted their only shot on target, and the defining characteristics of the Mourinho philosophy became increasingly dogmatic. The Chelsea boss approached the fixture with the intention of securing typical, hard-thought 1-0 win, but Saido Mane’s opener threw the game-plan out of the water. From then on, the west Londoners struggled to create anything considerable going forward, resorting tohalf-chances over committing men forward to work clear-cut opportunities.
It was a similar case against Newcastle three weeks earlier, Chelsea’s first defeat of the season. As Mourinho quipped post-match, the Magpies scored from virtually the only occasions where they crossed the halfway line, but to flip that analysis on its head, the Blues translated 66% possession and 27 shots into just the solitary goal – and even that came in the 83rd minute, courtesy of substitute Didier Drogba.
The bizarre paradox is that, in theory, Chelsea are the perfect away side. They defend as a unit of eleven, with every player contributing, can hit quickly on the counter-attack, are deadly from set pieces and possess the quality going forward to take advantage of sleight chances with ruthless efficiency. Perhaps most importantly of all, in perfect manifestation of their manager, they seem to thrive under the besieged mentality.
So, if not a change in philosophy, then perhaps personnel. Jose Mourinho’s gone public with his concerns over the inadequacies of Chelsea’s squad depth on several occasions already this term, but there are some players that could make a significant difference on the road. Ramires for example, is ideal for away days, possessing the pace to break from central areas and provide closer support to Diego Costa. His endless energy can improve Chelsea in defensive areas too, where they’re largely lacking in out-and-out pace.
Likewise, Loic Remy has been used surprisingly sparingly by Mourinho this season. He’s a clinical goalscorer with electric speed and will relentlessly stretch opposition defences, but has thus far seen just 166 minutes’ worth of Premier League action since his summer arrival.
Of course, deciding who they should come in for, and whether it’s worth the risk of changing formation to accommodate both, is a conundrum within itself. But if Chelsea’s lukewarm away form continues much longer, the momentum in the title race will undoubtedly shift in Manchester City’s favour.