Chelsea's final match of 2013 (H v Liverpool) saw Frank Lampard and Branislav Ivanović fall to injury. While nobody can doubt the duo's value to their club this campaign, the injuries may have lead to José Mourinho's discovery of Chelsea's best line-up, and in turn their best form to date.
Ivanović's omission has rendered the saga of Ashley Cole dormant. Other than once being caught as a fresh substitute against Liverpool, and a one-off burst of pace from Ahmed Elmohamady versus Hull City, England's first choice left-back hasn't put a foot wrong. Cole's return to the starting line-up has allowed César Azpilicueta to play his natural position of right-back, where he's been nothing short of tremendous.
A preferred centre-back, Ivanović's ability to marshal wingers with brute strength makes him a clear Mourinho-man. Yet the Serb's downfalls as a fullback are namely pace and his instinct to defend the box rather than the wings. With Cole and Azpilicueta in the team, Chelsea's back four look more solid; and one could make the argument it's due to the balance of speed on both sides of the pitch, and their natural inclination to defend the flanks of the pitch.
The Portuguese manager prefers the tandem of English centre-backs John Terry and Gary Cahill; this inclination has lead to David Luiz being an unused substitute or off the team sheet completely. When a player of Luiz's quality sits on the bench or in the stands, it gives tabloids fodder to pronounce he's exiting West London for Barcelona, Munich, Madrid, Naples and/or Paris – it becomes a mess in all honesty (see Juan Mata).
Frank Lampard's absence from the squad has created an opening in Chelsea's double pivot. Under the previous regime Stamford Bridge witnessed Luiz's midfield acumen, and in many ways found it's his best position. The Brazilian is a player who likes to roam forward and find passes, this tendency leaves gaps when he plays centre-back. As a holding midfielder Luiz has less defensive responsibility, and his offensive prowess (free kicks, etc.) outshines the likes of Michael Essien and John Obi Mikel. With Nemanja Matić's rumored return to West London, one wonders if Mourinho isn't overly excited to be playing Luiz in the hold. If the question is: "Should Sideshow Bob retain his place in the starting eleven;" the answer's a resounding yes given the past three weeks. With the Benfica midfielder worth an estimated **£24M, Chelsea should use the cash elsewhere. It would be better spent added to the all-but certain transfer of Kevin De Bruyne, and used to acquire an out-and-out striker.
Speaking of strikers.
If Chelsea fans want to cry – they look to Liverpool. Daniel Sturridge was sold a year ago for an estimated £12M, and has scored 20 goals in 27 league games. If Chelsea fans want to weep – they look to Everton. Romelu Lukaku has given Roberto Martinez's side nine goals in 17 BPL appearances during his loan spell. Basically they'll watch this month's rendition of the Merseyside Derby in tears.
Meanwhile at Stamford Bridge: Demba Ba has scored once, Samuel Eto'o thrice, and Fernando Torres has netted just four times this campaign.
If any of the trio has "claimed" the shirt, it's the Spaniard. Demba Ba isn't a fit in Mourinho's scheme, and Samuel Eto'o's a shell of his former self. The way Chelsea are attempting to play suits Torres to the ground – linked play and running into channels with the ball on the carpet. His previous seasons at Stamford Bridge have seen him saddled with injuries and playing a more direct, aerial style – one suited for the Didier Drogba's of the world. While the £50M paid for the striker will never feel equal value to his contribution, he's the best goal-getter at José Mourinho's disposal; and as such should be the number-one option in both the Champions and Premier leagues.
One thing that cannot be disputed are Mourinho’s favoured three behind the front-man. Eden Hazard, Oscar and Willian are playing brilliantly. Each are coming into their own as Mourinho-type attacking midfielders, and have grasped the starting shirts with great aplomb. Juan Mata’s exclusion from the starting eleven was a source of derision at the beginning of the season, and there are still whispers of frustration; but as a whole, those who watch the games cannot deny the results being offered from the preferred attacking options. The Spanish maestro will have to radiantly shine in FA Cup and substitute appearances to get a look in.
[Aside: Tottenham sold Gareth Bale to Real Madrid for an estimated £85.3M; Hazard, Oscar and Willian were purchased for an aggregated sum of £81.35M – football’s a crazy game isn’t it?]
Chelsea Football Club has been searching all season for the right combination of attacking silk and defensive steel, the line-up used against Hull City on Saturday provides an equal share of both. With the midfield and defence secured, all that needs to be improved is the ratio of goals from forwards. If Torres gets a solid run of games without injury, his best in a Chelsea shirt could still be yet to come. Familiarly breeds contempt, sure; but in football it breeds goals. The more Torres plays with the three attacking options, the better his ratio will become. That would seem to equal three points on a regular basis ladies and gentleman.
The question: “Has José Mourinho Found Chelsea’s Best Starting XI?” is the wrong one – he has.
The real question is: “Will he keep it?” . only time will tell.
**MV estimated by Transfermarkt on 08 October 2013