Solving striker struggles crucial to Chelsea's title hopes
If at first you don’t succeed, then try a different striker in every game – that’s the mantra Jose Mourinho’s sticking to, at least.
Chelsea’s Portuguese prince has so far not had things his own way upon his return to Stamford Bridge – indeed, his new (old) side are currently reeling from back-to-back defeats against Everton and Basel.
And none of it is helped by the Blues’ noticeable lack of firepower this season – incredible, considering another summer of substantial investment to the tune of over £60m.
“Every time I've seen them it's like they are a man down before they've started the game,” quipped Jamie Carragher after their Basel bashing. “No matter how many players you've got, if you haven't got a centre forward a lot of it [your play] falls down.”
While the signing of Samuel Eto’o has given Mourinho another option up front, his late arrival looks to be merely papering over the cracks that have existed since Didier Drogba’s departure last summer – and perhaps even longer.
Carragher is right. On the opening day of the season against Hull it was Fernando Torres given the nod, Demba Ba facing Aston Villa, Andre Schürrle at Old Trafford and, finally, Eto’o against Everton on his debut. None of them scored.
Mourinho already appears to have tired of Torres, having omitted the Spaniard from the squad that faced Basel entirely.
Even completely disregarding the 29-year-old’s obscene price tag (though almost three years old, it should be remembered), it’s impossible to detract from the fact his spell at Stamford Bridge has been nothing short of disastrous. The player who won Euro 2008 for Spain is long gone.
Against Hull he cut a typically frustrated figure as he saw both of his efforts blocked, completed just 66% of his passes and was hauled off with 15 minutes remaining.
Torres’ league strike rate for Chelsea is far from pretty at under 18%, but it’s still better than Demba Ba’s (13%). With just two goals in 15 league appearances for the Blues (12 of those coming from starts), it’s been similarly difficult for the Senegalese hitman since his January switch from Newcastle.
In fairness the service at the 28-year-old’s disposal was near non-existent against Villa. In 65 minutes he received a combined five passes from Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Frank Lampard, and made just eight of his own. All of that culminated in a sole effort on goal.
His replacement Romelu Lukaku, meanwhile, needed just 25 minutes to make an impact after notching three efforts and completing nine of his 12 passes.
So why Lukaku won’t be plying his trade at Stamford Bridge this season is anybody’s guess. After netting 17 times for West Brom last season (more than any other Chelsea player managed in the league last term), the 20-year-old has departed for Everton on loan for the remainder of the current campaign.
After the Blues' courting of Wayne Rooney, and subsequent failure to land the Manchester United man this summer, Lukaku seemed destined for a shot at spearheading Chelsea’s attack this time around.
That he didn’t start any of the Blues’ opening three games of the season was surprising – but that he won’t even be available for Mourinho entirely this season utterly baffling. At very least, the burly Belgian could have been the physical Plan B when his goal-shy team-mates fell short.
Mourinho insists he is happy with his three strikers for the campaign, which should at least give Chelsea fans some encouragement. That he doesn’t see Schürrle as a striker is certainly a good thing.
It’s not yet clear where the £18m German fits into Mourinho’s plans this season. Chelsea’s 4-2-3-1 is a system that should suit the 22-year-old forward but so far he’s been experimented with across the entire forward line.
Despite having spent the whole of last season supporting Stefan Kiessling from wide left at Bayer Leverkusen, Schürrle has made only one of his three starts there. A surprise nod up front against Manchester United isn’t likely to be repeated too often, if at all, despite his workmanlike display.
But that doesn’t matter, because it’s not where the young German’s best qualities lie. Schürrle is most comfortable supporting a main striker, of whom he often ends up playing alongside anyway thanks to his tendencies to cut inside.
Against Borussia Mönchengladbach last season, for example, he received passes in all areas of the final third and managed seven shots in the process.
But keeping sweet the array of talent at his disposal is just one of Mourinho’s challenge for the season. Having largely snubbed Juan Mata this season, it’s been Hazard who has taken over as the Blues’ creative hub – the Belgian appears to be Schürrle’s direct rival, and he isn’t going away anytime soon.
Altogether it’s left Mourinho sticking on Eto’o at the sharp end, but so far the 32-year-old’s performances have been more poodle than predator.
While his debut against Everton culminated in a scoreless evening from six attempts, Chelsea’s midweek defeat to Basel proved just as fruitless. Indeed, he received just one pass inside the box all game and registered just one effort – a half-chance, meekly hit at the opposition goalkeeper.
As the above influence graphic shows, Hazard touched the ball more often centrally as Eto’o was forced to feed off scraps out wide.
In recent seasons Chelsea have been able to call upon their midfielders to weigh in where it matters – and with the likes of Lampard, Hazard, Mata and Oscar, who can blame them?
But it’s also up to the Blues’ creators to help the men in the middle, who in turn must help themselves. They aren’t getting it right at the moment, but Mourinho has the manpower to ensure that doesn’t hold true for much longer. It's imperative it doesn't – after all, Robin van Persie's exploits were the difference for Manchester United last season. Chelsea need to compete where it matters too.