How Chelsea's defensive frailties threaten to undermine title defence
Neither Manuel Pellegrini nor Arsene Wenger had never beaten Jose Mourinho until this month. The two men have regularly been on the receiving end of verbals from the Portuguese manager, but perhaps they should brace themselves for Rafa Benitez levels of abuse before the end of May. Last term's meanest defence in the Premier League has conceded six goals in three matches (including the Community Shield), with four of those goals arriving against the two likeliest challengers to their trophy.
The post-mortem into Chelsea's defensive system is just beginning and will likely continue throughout the campaign if their start to the season is anything to go by. Mourinho prides himself on managing a solid, cohesive unit and the last couple of weeks will have certainly bruised his ego.
It's improbable that Chelsea will suffer such a capitulation again this season but, unlike some pundits, Mourinho claims he didn't underestimate the threat posed by Manchester City and their attackers.
"I was the first one to be disappointed when you are all week speaking about movements and [Sergio] Aguero runs, and Aguero positions, and wingers come from outside to inside, and after 10 seconds Aguero is in the face of [Asmir] Begovic," groaned the Portuguese post-match.
Numerous errors played their part in the collapse, and there isn't a quick fix to find a solution. However, it should be noted that the same back four and two deep-lying midfielders were immense as Chelsea secured their fifth top-flight title just a couple of months ago. Their strange pre-season schedule has surely contributed to the lethargic start, a possible continuation of the sluggishness that afflicted them in the latter months of last season. It could be that Mourinho just doesn't do third seasons very well, as he left both Porto and Inter on a high after two full years. In his first spell at Chelsea, things began to unravel in his third campaign – even though he did win both the FA and League Cups before departing a month into his fourth year – while his final season in Madrid turned toxic. Mourinho's demands often take their toll and he may have to curb his own enthusiasm if he plans for further longevity at Stamford Bridge.
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Asmir Begovic made his Chelsea debut at the Etihad Stadium, and although the former Portsmouth and Stoke goalkeeper was in no way culpable for the goals scored against him, they will have added uncertainty among the backline. Thibaut Courtois' sending off against Swansea on the opening weekend was a little erratic by his standards, with the shot-stopper practically impeccable for Chelsea and Atletico Madrid over the last three years. Generally, though, the Blues have few things to worry about in this area.
Branislav Ivanovic allowed international team-mate Aleksandar Kolarov to send in numerous crosses, with Aguero almost profiting on three occasions. The Serbian has been destroyed for pace by Swansea's Jefferson Montero and Raheem Sterling in subsequent weeks, while his poor near-post defending from corners led to a strong goalscoring opportunity for Bafetimbi Gomis and then Vincent Kompany's goal. It was also his half-hearted clearance that was emphatically finished by Fernandinho. Ivanovic is simply defending badly; whether it's by the halfway line or in his own area, the methodology is immaterial.
Cesar Azpilicueta is probably least at risk of losing his place, as his performances haven't been quite as concerning. The Spaniard's versatility and mobility will be crucial if the Blues are to turn around their fortunes, and it's possible he'll be switched back to the right with Baba Rahman taking up the left-back slot.
The withdrawal of John Terry sparked heated debate. Is it the onset of a natural decline for the 34-year-old? Was Mourinho diverting attention away from a poor performance of his team overall? Or, god forbid, was it simply a tactical decision that didn't quite have the desired impact? "It's a question of taking off John or [Gary] Cahill but for sure [Kurt] Zouma should be on the pitch because he's the fastest one," Mourinho mused. "In the first half no, because we thought the block was going to be much lower, but in the moment they decided to play long balls, counter-attack balls, then Zouma has to be on the pitch."
Most sides will now look to play in this manner against the Blues, which means the importance of the Frenchman will increase. Some reports suggested the team trained all week with Zouma, and that it was only a late decision on Friday that meant Terry started against City. If Mourinho can restore a relatively low block, then the Terry and Cahill axis will resume, but if they do play a high line then Zouma will be vital in intercepting the ball further up the pitch because he possesses the speed to make recovery tackles.
One of the many misconceptions about Cesc Fabregas is that he can't tackle. The former Barcelona midfielder averaged 2.4 per game last season and completed more challenges than any other player against Pellegrini's men last weekend. His main problem, however, is his tactical intelligence, which means he isn't sure when to drop off and when to press the ball. "Sometimes in England it feels like you don't have time to think, but that's more a mental question; it's more about your own aggressive intuition, the atmosphere," Fabregas admitted to The Guardian in 2013. "It motivates you but it means you lose control. In Spain, teams work much more on shape; they're more tactical, more positional."
Nemanja Matic was sublime 12 months ago, but the Serbian will need a little more help and discipline from any potential midfield partner if he's to rediscover that level once again. Mourinho doesn't appear to know his favoured central midfield duo for the toughest matches, with Zouma previously used against Manchester United. With the title sewn up at the start of May, Fabregas was pushed into the No.10 guise and Mourinho tried various combinations, including youngster Ruben Loftus-Cheek. It means the Portuguese has now tried seven different partnerships in the last six competitive matches.
Last year Ramires acted as a third midfielder from a wide position to offer further protection, but the Brazilian has dropped his standards and arguably isn't good enough for the Blues in the toughest matches. Mourinho will need to settle on a preferred holding two for games against top-four contenders this campaign, although the same can be said for the rest of his defensive group.