Chelsea will not look like a Mourinho team until he sorts out their defensive shortcomings

Weekend Dossier: It was surprising Chelsea did not add anyone in defensive midfield during the summer

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The Independent Football

The last time Chelsea went to Goodison Park, just over a year ago, they produced one of the best games of the season. Playing with that early burst they found after signing Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa, Chelsea scored twice in the first three minutes and ended up winning 6-3. The margin was comfortable enough, yet Thibaut Courtois had to make a brilliant save to stop Everton pulling it back to 5-4 with 10 minutes left.

Jose Mourinho, though, made very clear afterwards what he thought about Chelsea’s performance. “It was wonderful for everyone watching, but not for me,” he said. “We cannot make so many defensive mistakes. We want to improve as a team by keeping our defensive quality and strength and balance. Today we showed we are improving in other areas, but we are not keeping our balance and our solidity in defence.”

On New Year’s Day, Chelsea went to White Hart Lane and produced a similar game against Spurs with almost the reverse result, losing 5-3 and looking far from what everyone expects of a Mourinho side. It was that result which prompted the manager to take a more defensive – in his word “strategic” – tactical approach, one that led his team to the title.

Between that day and when they won the league, Chelsea conceded just eight goals in 15 Premier League games, a remarkable record. Every Mourinho team, and every Mourinho title, is based primarily on defensive stability. They did not finish last season with quite as strong a record as in 2004-05 or 2005-06, but it was still the best defence in the country, even accounting for some end-of-term carelessness in May.

 

The question Chelsea face on Saturday afternoon, then, as they return to Goodison Park, is what on earth has happened to that security at the back this season? In four league games so far, Chelsea have conceded nine goals and not kept a clean sheet. It is a small sample size, but it is also 60 per cent of the goals Chelsea conceded in their first Mourinho title season of 2004-05, and 40 per cent of what they conceded in 2005-06.

When asked yesterday about Chelsea’s poor start to the season, Mourinho said he “did not have to analyse that” with the press, simply admitting that Chelsea were “under-performing as a team”. Before the 2-1 defeat to Crystal Palace two weeks ago, though, he said the goals Chelsea had conceded were either due to brilliant play or individual mistakes, which pointed to no overall issue and would, presumably, level out over the course of the season.

“We had individual mistakes completely out of context with the games,” Mourinho said on 28 August. “Man City, for example, I can say fantastically played [for their first goal]. The second goal was an individual mistake. The third goal too was out of context. Against West Brom, their first goal was fantastically played. An individual mistake for the second goal. Normally, individual mistakes are reduced. I trust the players, so I’m OK.”

It was a theme Mourinho returned to yesterday when he said Chelsea’s results did not reflect their performances. “The only thing I will share is that in every match we have played better than the result,” he said. “Circumstances in the match gave us a result worse than the performance.”

But those circumstances are not entirely random and there are trends which suggest what has happened to the best defence in the country. Branislav Ivanovic has struggled at right-back, repeatedly exposed against pace. He was especially poor in the home defeat to Crystal Palace and for the first time in years his place in the Chelsea team is under serious examination. With Baba Rahman signed for £20m from Augsburg, Chelsea now have another quick full-back they can call upon, and if he were to come into the team Cesar Azpilicueta could switch to the right.

Chelsea’s other veteran defender, John Terry, has struggled as well, withdrawn at half-time at Manchester City for Kurt Zouma, and sent off at The Hawthorns for a professional foul on Salomon Rondon. When on 28 August Mourinho identified Chelsea’s two best spells of the season – the second half at the Etihad, and with 10 men at West Brom – they were the times when Terry was off the field.

Ivanovic and Terry have looked exposed, given the higher defensive line Chelsea have played this season. This leaves more space in behind them, making them vulnerable against fast opponents, as Sergio Aguero showed for City. If Chelsea are committed to playing higher up the pitch, Rahman and Zouma, who have the pace to do it, should feature more.

Mourinho does not often go in for individual analysis, though – it is a team game – and it cannot have escaped him that his midfield is not offering anywhere near enough protection. At the start of last season he tried partnering Nemanja Matic with Fabregas in a 4-2-3-1 and while it is good enough for most home games, smart opponents know how to get past Fabregas – who does little defending – and isolate Matic. That is why last season Mourinho turned to John Obi Mikel and, increasingly, Zouma to help out in midfield.

It was surprising that Chelsea did not add anyone new in defensive midfield during the summer transfer window, given how all the Mourinho teams of the past have been built on strength and control in that area. At Chelsea the first time he had Claude Makélélé and Michael Essien, at Internazionale he had Thiago Motta and Esteban Cambiasso, at Real Madrid he had Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira.

Yet this Chelsea team, for as long as it defends as it has done in the four Premier League games so far, does not look like any of those sides. It does not resemble a Mourinho team. Changes in tactics or personnel may be the only way to turn it back into one.

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