During the heady days of 2005 to 2007, when Premier League titles and FA and League Cups were par for the course, Chelsea fans must have wondered if it could get any better. With hindsight, the immediate answer was no. Chelsea have continued to challenge for titles but, more often than not, they have fallen short and never threatened to be the force they were at the height of Jose Mourinho’s reign. Their continual presence in the top two or three of the league is a testament to the consistency and leadership of senior players such as Jon Terry and Frank Lampard, but in terms of personnel and approach, they have made little progress. While their rivals have evolved, Chelsea have remained plagued – and ultimately shackled by – the same enduring tactical and selection dilemmas. It may sound like heresy to say, but many of these can be traced back to the end of Mourinho’s time.
What defined Chelsea at their peak was a core defensive strength allied with an attack of both clout and stealth, equally adept at striking on the counter or driving through the heart of opponents. The 4-3-3 formation Mourinho adopted was central to this. The Chelsea manager utilised the pace, width and goal scoring potential of Arjen Robben, Joe Cole and Damien Duff on the flanks along with the rock-solid centre of Terry, Petr Cech, Claude Makelele and Didier Drogba. But towards the end of his hugely successful reign, Mourinho made some subtle changes which curtailed much of their momentum. The sales of Duff in 2006 and Robben – despite a poor season – in 2007 were huge blows to the team. Their replacements, including Florent Malouda, were inferior ball players and did not offer the same dribbling options or goal scoring potential.
The introduction of Michael Ballack to their midfield was another step towards a forceful, functional and direct unit to the detriment of its speed, subtlety and mobility. At the start of the 2007/08 season – a month before his departure – Mourinho increasingly adopted a 4-4-2 or 4-1-2-1-2 set up with Claudio Pizarro, Andrei Shevchenko or even Salomon Kalou playing up front alongside Drogba. Chelsea were quickly becoming more predictable, narrow in vision and direct in approach, and their strategy has altered little since. Felipe Scolari attempted to introduce greater movement and tempo to the team but his early success was short-lived. The acquisition of Nicolas Anelka injected much needed pace to their attack and, playing alone up front, he thrived on the counter-attack away from home, but the ploy imploded at Stamford Bridge and Drogba returned to bolster the attack. The inevitable lack of width from playing two up front yet still cramming central midfield continues to haunt them.
In post-mortems of significant defeats the same themes emerge with a lack of width (leading to congested central areas and few threatening crosses), dribbling options to create openings, mobility in midfield, movement and tempo in attack – making Chelsea all-too-often all too predictable. When without the speed and width of Ashley Cole and Jose Bosingwa, they can become a laboured and limited force – which is why Mourinho read them so successfully on his return to Stamford Bridge in the Champions League. He knew the same weaknesses and deficiencies remained as the Chelsea ‘project’ had lost its momentum before Mourinho’s departure. Obviously it would be false to blame an absent man for their current travails – no doubt he would have found answers had he stayed – but that Chelsea continued to be plagued by the same problems that were evident at the end of Mourinho’s reign demonstrates the lack of progress they have made over the past few seasons.
And for that Roman Abramovich – with his sudden cap on spending – and a succession of managers who have failed to stamp their authority and ideas on the side – with the brief exception of Guus Hiddink – must bare much of the responsibility.