It’s often been said that the manager’s position at Chelsea is so precarious that, if go for a season without winning the league, you’ll be sacked. I don’t know how true that it, but Robert di Matteo actually won the Champions League and got the sack, so there may be more than a glimmer of truth in it! What’s for sure is that, if anyone knows the requirements for keeping the Roman Abramovich trigger finger from getting too twitchy, it’s the Blues current boss Jose Mourinho. With Chelsea’s own ‘once and future king’ now reinstalled, great things will be expected – not only by the club owner, but by the fans as well. So, let’s project forward to the big kick off and see how the team could line up – and win the league!
The position between the sticks is probably the most secure for any player in the squad. Petr Cech remains an outstanding performer and Mourinho will see the Czech international as a rock at the back of his defence. The signing of Mark Swartzer as back up was astute. As a replacement for long time number two ‘keeper Ross Turnbull, it’s an upgrade. The Aussie, although now 40, is still in pristine fitness and will doubtless get some game time as Cech is rested, or covering for injury as required.
Strangely for the Blues what looked on paper to be one of their strengths last season was in reality shown to be a weakness. Despite the well-publicised striker trials and tribulations, netting from the midfield largely hid this issue, and goal scoring wasn’t really a problem. What did cost the team dear however was conceding sloppy goals, and an inability to see games out from a winning position. There were numerous occasions, but examples being leading 2-0 at half-time in a home game to Southampton, and ending at 2-2. Leading 2-0 at Reading after 86 minutes and only getting a draw was poor, and the game that probably cost them their chance of getting out of the Champions’ League group phase, leading 2-0 at home to Juventus, and after conceding two goals in the second half, ending at 2-2.
All of that said, one wonders if that was a personnel issue or a structure issue. Azpilicueta developed into a strong player as the season progressed and has virtually secured the right-back berth. The club has invested in young Brazilian defender Wallace, but he is more of a long term propspect, and for the moment, the Basque’s position seems secure. At the heart of the defence, a quandary may arise for Mourinho. Whilst his emotional comfort blanket of playing the Captain, Leader, Leader John Terry as his stalwart will be a strong pull, the pre-season games will quickly define the player’s physical ability to perform as required however. If the stoic attitude over years of playing through injury and pain has now begun to catch up on Terry, it may well be that Branislav Ivanovic will be the first choice stopper and defender in chief. This was very much the case towards the end of last season, and the new term may start the same way. Alongside him, it would appear to be a choice between the English approach of Cahill and the Brazilian attitude of David Luiz.
It’s an interesting choice. Mourinho’s natural instinct is to have defenders who defend. That may give Cahill the edge. To my mind however, and I know it’s a controversial opinion, I believe that Luiz is the outstanding central defender in the Premier League, and I for one, am not in the least surprise that he’s not only the consistent starter in that position for Brazil, but is also being courted by the highest echelon of clubs across Europe. For me, if Chelsea can dissuade the suitors and retain Luiz, he’s a ‘shoe in’ for the Blues’ defence. Left-back? Ashley Cole remains the best full back in the country and with Ryan Bertrand as cover, the Blues are well served in that area. The first choice back for me is therefore Azpilicueta, Ivanovic, Luiz and Cole. To fill in the gaps for injuries and rotation, there’s still Terry and Cahill, Bertrand, plus the youngsters Nathan Ake, Nathaniel Chalobah, newly returned from loan at Watford and Czech international Kallas.
The midfield is an interesting issue, as it all depends of course on Mourinho’s chosen format of play. The Portuguese is no regimented automaton and will be flexible in his approach depending on opposition, player availability and game importance, but for the sake of this, I’m assuming a solidtwo, with a fluid three supporting a lone striker. Initially, looking at the solid two, last season, this would have comprised of two from Lampard, Mikel, Ramires and sometimes even Luiz. I wouldn’t be surprised if when the whistle blows for the first game of the new season, none of these – except Luiz - are on the pitch.
The deal for Italian midfielder Daniele De Rossi appears to be moving positively, and if it’s completed, I believe the 29 year old will start. As well as having the ‘game brain’ to play the holding role, taking the ball from defence and keeping it moving around, should the afore-mentioned Luiz launch one of his famed sorites forward, dropping in to cover will be a well-trodden path for De Rossi. Alongside him, I can see a berth for Brazilian tyro Oscar. Interesting? Well, although he spent much of last season playing on the wide of the striker-supporting three further forward, he did drop into the holding role on a few occasions.
Despite his frail appearance there’s a terrier-like quality to the Brazilian’s desire to regain possession, and couple this to the role giving him added time on the ball to prompt the Chelsea attacks, a partnership with de Rossi could be ideal. The first choice holding pair for me would then be De Rossi and Oscar. This of course does not mean there would be no space to move the around the players and rotate the squad. With Lampard, Ramires, even assuming that the speculation ends with Mikel departing, plus the young Dutch signing van Ginkel expecting game time, and the returning Josh McEachran there’ll be options aplenty for Mourinho.
The three supporting players are where Chelsea are probably at their strongest. Despite it being a below average year for the club, it’s not insignificant that both Juan Mata and Eden Hazard figured in the top six for the PFA Player of the Year award. There’s no surprise than that both of these players will, I believe figure strongly in the new term, and will be in the first choice eleven. Although they may start with Mata in the traditional ‘number 10’ role and Hazard on the flank, there will be inevitable interchanging of position. With the other member of the normal three from last year, Oscar, now deployed in a deeper role, there’ll be a gap and I expect this to be filled by new signing Andre Schurrle. The German has the pace and ability to be the counter-point to Hazard on the opposite flank, plus a goal-scoring record to savour.
This trio will not only score goals, but will also be able to provide and prompt for the striker in front of them. Now, that’s a whole new tale, but back to that in a moment. Although Hazard, Mata and Schurrle would be my choice for the three roles, with potential support from Moses, the young Belgian de Bruyne – who I still believe could be a sensation – plus the possibility of deploying Ramires or Bertrand, again there’s plenty of options for the Blues.
Now, back to the thorny question of the striker. Running the lone role requires a certain type of character. It’s certainly not merely a question of physical presence. Although Didier Drogba would be a popular blueprint for this sort of player, Luis Suarez, although not possessing a six foot muscular physique, is also stunningly effective for Liverpool in the role. The Blues soldiered on through last season with Torres in the position, but his effectiveness was fleeting, and despite a reasonable goal return, as a spearhead, he remains a fairly blunt instrument. Amid the flurry of Europe’s top strikers changing clubs, Chelsea have very much been in the background.
Although linked with Cavani and to some extent Lewandowski, the squad remains at least one player light in the in the striker department. Romelu Lukaku has returned from a successful loan spell last season, and will surely get game time, but with Demba Ba apparently on the move again, at least one new signing is required.
It’s difficult to argue the case that Mourinho will soldier on without a big name striker purchase, and he’s also unlikely to descend into the last minute panic shopping that Arsenal were compelled to indulge in a while back, so the Portuguese probably has a plan. Despite the efforts of David Moyes to the contrary, talk remains stubbornly consistent that Wayne Rooney will move from Manchester United, and if that is the case, Chelsea is apparently the most likely destination with Skybet having the London club at 6/4 with PSG the next likely club at 6/1. With that in mind, I’m going with Rooney as the striker for Chelsea’s first eleven next year.
If Mourinho can work the oracle and assemble this team, I think there’s every chance that come next May, the blues will be there or thereabouts when the trophy is decided. Love or hate Mourinho, there’s no denying that he’s a he’s a serial winner. Get this team assembled, apply a bit of organization and inspiration, and Chelsea fans could have a tremendous season.