After eking out a 1-0 victory over Manchester United last weekend, Chelsea are now just three wins away from claiming their first Premier League title since 2010 – a challenge that will be made even easier if they defeat second-place Arsenal on Sunday – making it a double triumph for the 2014/15 campaign when combined with the Capital One Cup.
But looking back upon the season in full, could Chelsea have achieved more this year? They have, after all, spent around £225million since Jose Mourinho returned to Stamford Bridge in summer 2013, more than both Manchester City and Manchester United, and they are, after all, privy to arguably the greatest manager of a generation.
Cast your minds back to November-time. Pundits were tipping Chelsea to win the quadruple, to claim the Premier League title undefeated, to bring the Champions League title back to England. Of course, it was all laced with intoxicating hyperbole, but somewhere in every exaggeration lays a thin veil of truth.
So, could the champions-elect have done a little better this season? Should they have won the quadruple? Some of you may know Jose Mourinho complies a dossier at the end of every season detailing the circumstances of every defeat, and this is my abbreviated attempt to do the same.
Perhaps the FA Cup defeat to Bradford City can be feasibly categorised as a bit of a fluke. The 4-2 defeat is an occasion Chelsea fans would rather forget, but it will probably be remembered as one of the greatest FA Cup comebacks and giant killings in the tournament’s history. Despite the limited quality of the opposition, Bradford have a bizarre knack of doing well in the auxiliary tournaments – defeating Arsenal to reach a Capital One Cup final against Swansea City back in 2013 – so perhaps the magic of the FA Cup played against Chelsea in this instance. Then again, the west Londoners would fancy their chances (and then some) against finalists Arsenal and Aston Villa.
In regards to their elimination from the Champions League, I can’t be quite so forgiving. The Blues seem almost tailor-made for European double-leggers; they’re clinical, disciplined, pragmatic and have without a doubt the best big-game tactician around in Jose Mourinho.
Yet they lost in the round of 16, albeit on aggregate, to a ten-man PSG side who couldn’t last twenty minutes without conceding against Barcelona last week – despite entering the second leg in the comfort of Stamford Bridge with an away goal already on the chalkboard. Overall, the 3-3 draw with the French champions has to be classed as an uncharacteristic choke; Chelsea reached last season’s semi-finals with an intrinsically weaker squad lacking a dependable goalscorer. They should have at least matched that progress this year, if not surpassed it.
It seems ridiculous to criticise a side who could win the Premier League title with three games to spare, but that prediction of claiming the English crown undefeated still lingers in my mind. It’s a much tougher ask than when Arsenal’s Invinicbles completed the rare accomplishment a decade ago, yet considering Newcastle and Tottenham Hotspur are the only sides to have beaten Chelsea in the Premier League this year, it was undoubtedly within their grasp.
Furthermore, in comparison to prior campaigns, the level of competition at the top of the Premier League has been surprisingly low this year. The fact only Arsenal are still within realistic distance of catching Chelsea despite spending only eleven weeks in the top four and just two weeks in second place pretty much says it all. Being uber-critical, Chelsea could’ve wrapped it up already – although they’ve not lost to a top four side this term, their points per-game against such opposition has dropped from 2.6 to 1.8 since last season.
In my opinion, the 2014/15 Chelsea squad will truly stand out as one of the club’s greatest in the rose-tinted light of history. It’s perhaps a shade shy of the world-class cohort during Jose Mourinho’s first spell at Stamford Bridge, yet it offers a perfect blend of new and old, prodigious and proven, experienced and learning.
It’s the crossroads between the old Chelsea era and the new one, with some rather unique personnel. No team in the world, for example, started the season with a stronger goalkeeping department than Thibaut Courtois, Petr Cech and Mark Schwarzer. And few sides have an engine-room of such eclectic well-roundedness as Cesc Fabregas and Nemanja Matic.
Likewise, who better to have as a replacement for Diego Costa than the indisputable template of Chelsea no.9s Didier Drogba? And then there’s the small matter of Eden Hazard – by a country mile, the biggest talent in the Premier League.
So if there’s one criticism to be made that Chelsea could genuinely learn from, it’s that Jose Mourinho hasn’t always taken full advantage of the diversity of talents at his disposal – which also explains why some of the Blues’ biggest stars have tailed off over the last few months, particularly Fabregas, Oscar and Matic.
We know he likes to keep a consistent starting Xi as much as possible and indeed, during the instances the Portuguese has rotated – the Bradford defeat, for example, which included Andreas Christensen, Kurt Zouma, John Obi Mikel, Ramires, Loic Remy, Didier Drogba, and Mohamed Salah – the Blues have often struggled.
But using these players so sparingly has been Mourinho’s biggest mistake. That secondary cohort have made just 28 Premier League starts between them this year, and there’s an almighty gap in Chelsea’s squad between Ramires on nine starts and Diego Costa on 23, with the rest of the team laying either side.
Rusty performances are inevitable with such limited game-time. Rather than simply letting injuries dictate his selections, the Chelsea boss needs to be more preemptive, bringing in his back-up options into games that specifically suit their expertise.
If that had happened this season, maybe Chelsea could’ve recorded a quadruple or claimed the league title undefeated. Who knows – I wouldn’t dare to speculate. But in terms of looking ahead, it’s clear Mourinho must start maximising every area of his squad. Whether that obliges him to make further improvements over the summer remains to be seen.