Amid Chelsea’s worst start to the season in 37 years and following what Jose Mourinho has described as ‘the worst period’ of his trophy laden career, securing three points against a seemingly relegation-bound Aston Villa was all that mattered to the Premier League champions on Saturday.
The Special One’s decision to drop his only truly special player, Eden Hazard, was enough evidence that by hook or by crook the Portuguese’s solitary objective was to return to winning ways. In terms of morale, league standing and potentially his own long-term employment, it was essential that the eleventh-place west Londoners did.
Yet the three points failed to pave over all the cracks reared in recent months and in fact left Chelsea facing as many questions as answers – the most predominant and curious being what to make of Hazard’s aforementioned absence.
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Make no mistake about it, this wasn’t a convincing win for the Blues. They kept a clean sheet but against the third-least proficient attack in the league that still managed to cause them problems; Villa recorded more possession, a superior pass completion rate, more efforts at goal, more successful aerial duels and more successful dribbles than the champions.
Of course, that pattern, especially away from home, is by no means alien to Mourinho’s side. Always protruding efficiency over style, the Blues learned a long time ago that control of the match doesn’t necessarily require control of possession and many of their victories on the road last season were sourced from a resilient defence combined with rare moments of match-deciding brilliance at the other end.
But that wasn’t the case on Saturday. Diego Costa was gifted a goal as Joleon Lescott failed to control a suicidal pass from Brad Guzan, whilst another freak goal produced Chelsea’s second – a cruel deflection off Alan Hutton’s shin. Meanwhile, Mourinho hauled off yet another player prematurely, youngster Ruben Loftus-Cheek being benched at the interval, whilst Hazard’s absence cast a perplexing shadow over proceedings.
“I left out Hazard because we are conceding lots of goals,” said Mourinho at full-time. “We need to defend better. When you don’t have the ball, quality means nothing and what means [thumps chest]… you have or you don’t have. It was just a tactical decision, leaving super quality on the bench, but bringing tactical discipline and hoping that the team could be solid.”
It’s hard to argue with Mourinho’s logic but the burning question now is quite simply, when does Hazard come back in? And following on from that, how many more wins can Chelsea realistically expect in the absence of their most talented creative threat?
Even amid his barren spell this season, the Belgium international is still the Premier League’s fourth-most effective dribbler and sixth-best creator, averaging 3 take-ons and 3.1 created chances per match respectively. Needless to say, no Chelsea player boasts a better return on either front. With Oscar also in the doghouse, Cesc Fabregas struggling wherever he’s deployed and Loftus-Cheek proving unsatisfactory at No.10, Mourinho’s attacking options are becoming increasingly limited to workaholic wide men Pedro and Willian.
It’s hardly a dire situation; both are Champions League standard players. But Hazard’s absence suggests relationships behind the scenes are still strained, with Nemanja Matic and Oscar also excluded from Saturday’s starting XI. Short-term thinking was crucial against Villa but the number of players who have felt the full force of Mourinho’s accusative finger this season are beginning to pile up and it’s inevitable to speculate the potential long-term consequences.
Of course, Mourinho is an incredibly talented manager and I’m sure he’s already planning how and when to integrate the aforementioned names back into his starting XI. Likewise, dropping Hazard resonates the clear message that nobody in the squad is exempt from culpability.
But Chelsea can’t expect to simply grind out wins with lesser personnel until they’re back into top four contention. Gifted wins of Saturday’s variety won’t come around every week in the Premier League; it was a match that felt like the Blues had simply been handed the spate of fortune they’ve otherwise lacked this season, rather than a genuine turning point of their disappointing campaign. Sooner rather than later, Mourinho will need his big players once again.
Although finding a first victory in four across all competitions was the first and arguably most important step on Chelsea’s road of recovery, the crisis in west London is still far from over.