It’s hard to identify a weakness when analysing Chelsea. Their starting XI is blessed with world-class quality in all departments, ranging from Diego Costa up front to Thibaut Courtois between the sticks, and their team ethic and organisation, inspired by Jose Mourinho’s pragmatic philosophy and all-for-one mentality, is rare for a team so enriched in natural ability.
They’re capable of winning games through a plethora of manners – perhaps the ultimate litmus test for potential Premier League champions – and the Blues perplex their opposition with an intrinsic paradox; the more you attack them, the more you attempt to pressurise them, the weaker inevitably you become.
Arsenal, Everton, Liverpool Manchester City and Manchester United have all faced Chelsea already this season without unearthing a winning formula, resulting in a relatively cosy three-point lead at the Premier League’s summit and an undefeated streak of fourteen league games.
Yet, a potential, or at least more likely, game-plan to stop the monolithic west Londoners has emerged over the last few weeks from a rather unlikely location – the north-east.
Sunderland held Chelsea to a scoreless draw two weekends ago, the first time in any fixture they’ve failed to find the net this season, whilst local rivals Newcastle went one step further last Saturday, becoming the only side to bag a victory over the Blues in any competition. Both results were inspired, rather ironically, by parking the bus.
Perhaps park and ride would be a more accurate description. In addition to keeping all eleven men behind the ball for extended periods of the match, the Tyne and Wear outfits both rode their luck against the Blues. Sunderland soaked up pressure until Chelsea’s frustration overflowed, eventually allowing them to create the lion’s share of chances on the counter-attack, whilst Newcastle took advantage of their only clear opportunities of the match to record a shock 2-1 win. As Mourinho stated post-match, the Magpies’ two strikes came from virtually the only occasions they crossed the halfway line.
Not to dirty the nature of Sunderland’s draw or Newcastle’s victory; perhaps there was slightly less precision and intent behind them, often resembling more a dogged rabble than an organised defence, but it was the exact template of performance that’s become synonymous with Chelsea, or more specifically, Mourinho, over the years.
Gus Poyet and Alan Pardew’s joint pursuit of the Mourinho mantra has unearthed a flaw that Chelsea spent £91million to eradicate during the summer; even with the likes of Oscar, Cesc Fabregas, Eden Hazard and Diego Costa in attack, they still struggle to create chances quite as freely their title rivals.
Despite boasting the healthiest goals for column in the league, Chelsea are actually behind City for the amount of goals in open play and only four ahead of Southampton. They’re also surpassed in efforts on goal per match by the Premier League champions again, as well as Arsenal, and in chances created this season, 209 compared to 217.
The differences are marginal but that should not be to their discredit. One only need watch a few instances of City and Chelsea to realise the contrast to their styles. Whilst City attack with aesthetic quality and produce goals through world-class ingenuity, Chelsea – when not in top gear – often require space on the counter-attack, pandemonium in the box or their height advantage at dead ball scenarios.
No amount spent in the transfer market can overcome this; this is the dogmatic disadvantage of the Mourinho philosophy, the yang to the ying of Chelsea’s often impenetrable sturdiness. This is why players such as Juan Mata and David Luiz are no longer at the club.
So if you’re prepared to out-Chelsea Chelsea, if you’re willing to parody Mourinho and park the bus against the undisputed master of bus parking, you might, should fortune favour you for 90 minutes, just grab a win.
An acceptable enough task for the Premier League’s more rank and file opposition, the calibre and style of side Chelsea came unstuck against last season, but for the divisional rivals, the likes of Arsenal, United and City, who all live and die by their attacking mantras, it will take swallowing some pride. At times, it almost feels as if they think they’re above Chelsea’s more balanced, or in many instances defensive, style of play.
Such superficialities have never concerned Mourinho however. Take Chelsea’s victory against Liverpool last season, for example. The Blues looked to defend the clean sheet from the start, even employing time-wasting tactics after the first twenty minutes and having just a handful of opportunities at goal, but it resulted in a 2-0 win.
Mourinho wasn’t afraid of his side becoming the philosophical villains of the piece; perhaps it’s time some of the title rivals took a leaf out of his book.