Under Jose Mourinho, Chelsea were labelled boring and were criticised for grinding out results. Fast forward three years and Carlo Ancelotti’s team are again facing objection, not for their style of play, but because of their opening fixtures, two of which were against newly promoted opposition. Since the Blues annihilated West Brom 6-0 on the opening day, their Premier League schedule has been one of the main talking points and on Friday, Sir Alex Ferguson joined the debate, remarking how the Stamford Bridge side have been given an easy ride in their first five games.
Such criticism, however, is exaggerated and it is also unfair. At half-time on Sunday, Chelsea were 4-0 up after a scintillating display. Their passing, fluidity and movement was excellent, Florent Malouda again showed why he has become one of the league’s most effective attackers with a brace, and Ian Holloway described the side as awesome, declaring: “ I think we would have lost no matter what we did.” It might have only been Blackpool, but praise like that from an opposition manager shows the Blues are really something special so far this season.
The main reason Chelsea’s fixture list has attracted so much attention, is because they are yet to face any club that are likely to finish in the top half of the table. The Baggies and Blackpool have been dismissed as relegation cannon fodder since they won promotion last May, and West Ham and Wigan just aren’t very good in most fans eyes. The task of playing these teams, however, should not be underestimated. Blackpool have already caused some surprise results, and against teams that have come up from the Championship opponents never know exactly what to expect. The Blues also hit two against Stoke whose tough approach has disrupted many teams’ natural game.
In some ways, the reason for negativity seems to be the fact that Chelsea’s performances have been so ruthless. Rather than praising their clinical finishing, immovable defence and the exceptional displays by Michael Essien and John Obi Mikel, it has been taken as a given in some quarters that the opposition were just that bad. Looking back to this time last season, however, shows an interesting comparison. The Blues had maximum points from their first six games, including victories against stronger sides in Fulham and Spurs, and they had also scored fifteen goals, which when one considers the team was not as settled as it is now is quite an impressive amount. The results did not attract as much attention because they were not so comprehensive and eyes were on Manchester United who were defending the Premier League crown. Nevertheless, Chelsea opened their campaign in much the same fashion and it led them to victory come May.
With the Blues next matches against Manchester City and Arsenal, these games have been marked out as a test of the Londoners’ title-winning credentials. Whether that is the case is debatable, however, as the Premier League is not about the quality of the opposition you beat but how many points you accumulate. This argument is especially flawed when one considers Chelsea’s results against City in 2009/2010. The Eastland’s side were the only team who managed to do the double over Carlo Ancelotti’s men but this did not affect the Champions overall placing. Whilst securing victories against the top four is important, a win against West Ham is just as effective as a victory against Arsenal because it’s three points. And with the Gunners dropping points against Sunderland, and United conceding late equalisers at Everton and Fulham, this if anything puts less pressure on Chelsea to get maximum points against their nearest rivals. City were praised at the weekend for overcoming their DW Stadium hoodoo, but when Chelsea brushed aside the Latics, it was because the side look like relegation candidates.
What all this can detract away from, is the fact that Chelsea are looking like an unbeatable squad, and the main talking point from the Blues camp is the strength and versatility of the team. Ancelotti, ahead of Wednesday’s League Cup tie against Newcastle, highlighted this when he declared his reason for using younger players is not because they are taking the competition lightly but: “We want to show that we can adapt to any game – this can be our strength.” His side are never going to be everyone’s favourite second team because of the way they’ve achieved success, but at the moment they are playing some of the most exciting football in the league and there is an incredible team spirit surrounding the club.
The Seasiders match reflected this well, especially the transformation of Didier Drogba from a serial whinger into a committed team player who wore the Captain’s armband with pride, and tracked back to create chances as well as being there to score his side’s third goal. That the absence of John Terry and Frank Lampard attracted only minor attention, also highlights how far the squad have come and in the case of Lampard his name was only mentioned in relation to whether he could have increased the goal tally rather than what his presence would have added to the team. Stability seems key to this Chelsea side and with Ramires the only addition in the summer, Ancelotti clearly has faith in his men and this confidence is quickly being rewarded. Malouda summed up the feeling at Stamford Bridge when asked whether the Blues have something to prove against City, responding: “I am not thinking about sending any message out. The only thing I want is to keep our confidence, to keep working hard.” Praise might not bother the team but if Chelsea can put on another storming display, then detractors are going to have to start looking for a more convincing excuse than favourable fixtures.