Following the dispiriting gloom of the Benitez era, the return of the prodigal One seems to have brought with it an optimism long missed around Stamford Bridge. Pre-season results have been mostly encouraging, with a returning batch of loaned youngsters adding competition and depth to last season’s stretched squad. Bookies have installed the club as favourites for the title in a season where managerial upheaval has made unknown quantities of the nation’s top three clubs.
Glancing over Chelsea’s squad offers many reasons to be cheerful. Whilst the press continues to push the idea of a weak strikeforce, Romelu Lukaku and Demba Ba are both established Premier League goalscorers capable of keeping defenders busy while the three amigos (Mata, Hazard and Oscar, for those who haven’t been paying attention) cut through the gaps with impunity. True, Lukaku’s decision making and first touch remain inconsistent and Ba has yet to gel with his teammates, but both represent a significant improvement over last season’s reliance on the tragic Fernando Torres, whose interminable presence remains a dark cloud on otherwise blue skies.
While Rooney remains a target, it’s difficult to fathom exactly what he’d be expected to bring to the club other than inconsistency, injury problems and an unjustified abundance of potato-headed narcissism. For the three months of good form that United have been able to get out of him most seasons – when he’s admittedly a force to be reckoned with – his habit of dropping deep only seems likely to get in Mata and Hazard’s way. Lukaku and Ba’s ability to drag defenders out of position seems better suited to a team whose greatest assets work best in the gap between midfield and attack.
Fortunately, it seems as though United will hold firm against selling to a title rival, leading to speculation that Mourinho’s attention has turned to one of his former lieutenants, Samuel Eto’o. While not offering the muscularity which Mourinho tends to favour in his front men, his direct approach could work excellently either opening up space for Hazard and Oscar or getting on the end of Mata’s precision passes. It remains to be seen whether he can recapture the spectacular form which convinced Anzhi to make him the best paid player in the world two years ago, but the pedigree and intelligence are certainly there. At 32, he’d be a short term option at best, but that’s no bad thing when Lukaku will need a year or two more to come into his prime. Another interesting option might have been the mercurial Zlatan Ibrahimovic, were it not for the bad blood between he and Mourinho. He’s reportedly looking to leave PSG in the wake of Cavani’s arrival and despite his well-known attitude problems, remains a world class talent and among Europe’s most fearsome front men. He would certainly represent a subtantial upgrade on our existing options, at least until storming off a year later because Ashley Cole was looking at him funny or something.
One area where Chelsea have no need of further reinforcement is attacking midfield, with Kevin De Bruyne’s pre-season form suggesting he has an excellent chance of breaking up the formidable trio of Oscar, Mata and Hazard. His outstanding crossing – with a success rate last season of roughly one in three – should prove invaluable in planting the ball in the areas where Lukaku and Ba operate best, while his precision with through balls and long shots make him a viable alternative to Mata or Oscar. More difficult to assess is Andre Schurrle, whose pre-season form backed up reports from Germany of his being a player capable of brilliance but marred by inconsistency. His volleyed finish against Milan was exquisite, but disguised an otherwise tepid performance.
The talent is there and his strength and height will prove useful occupying the Premier League’s more robust defenders, but as with Victor Moses, it’s difficult right now to see him as anything other than a talented squad player. Still, pre-season is no time to make definitive judgments, and he’s got all the attributes to succeed if he can deploy them intelligently and consistently.
A less heralded but perhaps more important signing could be Marco van Ginkel, who looks the sort of energetic all-rounder so valuable in the 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 formations likely to be José’s preserve this season. While still a frisky twenty years of age, his performances in pre-season hinted at the natural composure and tireless ground-covering of a budding midfield general. He has much of the young Steven Gerrard about him, albeit with greater positional sense and discipline. Whether he’s ready to take the big step up from the Dutch Eredivisie to the Premier League remains unknown, but he was one of few bright spots in the club’s otherwise meek surrender against Real Madrid last week.
His chances are improved by Chelsea otherwise having a compatibility issue among their deeper midfielders. Lampard remains the club’s most natural fit for the role, with his passing and shooting as exact as ever and positional awareness more than making up for ordinary defensive skills, but at thirty-five, his lack of pace opens up a vulnerability to counter-attacks. Ramires’ speed would seem to nullify that weakness, but his athleticism is more useful driving the play forward. Discipline is not an area where he excels and the gaps left in his wake can be exploited by creative opponents.
His poor form last season is another cause for concern, even though there have been clear signs of improvement during this year’s pre-season. Mikel remains Chelsea’s only truly defensive midfield option, but he’s adequate rather than excellent and, as with Lampard, betrayed by a lack of pace. Pairing the two together risks the team being steamrollered on the counter, as Atletico Madrid exploited to great effect in last year’s Super Cup. He and Ramires offer plenty of industry, but little creativity. While a defensive midfielder is needed at Chelsea, his incompatibility with potential partners makes it no surprise to see him linked with a transfer away. As for Essien, those legs just don’t move like they used to and few are under any illusions that his presence in the squad is down to anything more than his being a Mourinho favourite. He’s competent enough, but sadly looking well past his sell-by date.
The situation in defence is not dissimilar, in that the talent is evident but fitting it together remains a puzzle. Terry’s commanding presence is invaluable, yet all that fighting through the pain as a young man is increasingly restricting his ability to keep up with trickier opponents. Cahill is outstanding on the intercept but tends to watch the ball more than his man, while David Luiz’s natural gifts are obvious, but his love of bombing forward and diving into challenges has proven disastrous in the past. If he can improve his awareness and decision making, he’ll be one of the league’s best defenders. As it stands, his outrageous skills too often prove a liability, especially when paired with the occasionally inattentive Cahill or Branislav Ivanovic.
At full-back, Ivanovic and Cesar ‘Dave’ Azpilicueta offer two different sets of skills on the right. All-Bran’s strength, aerial threat and defensive discipline give him the edge against more direct wingers, while Azpilicueta allies decent defensive skills with greater speed and dribbling. Azpilicueta is the better rounded of the two, with Ivanovic having a tendency to let mistakes creep into his game and still can’t pass to save his life, but their combined versatility should prove a major asset if Mourinho can use them correctly. On the left, Cole and Bertrand are more naturally similar, but in the case of such well-balanced talents, that’s hardly a bad thing. Cole isn’t the dynamo he once was, but remains one of the league’s finest left-backs.
Bertrand got no end of stick for his struggles against Darijo Srna of Shakhtar Donetsk last season, but he has otherwise shown himself an exceptionally capable understudy. His defensive skills are still a smidgen unrefined, but until Luke Shaw reaches maturity, he’s the best young English left back around and certainly has the potential to hold down the position at the club, and possibly his country, in years to come.
While Petr Cech remains uncontested as first choice goalkeeper, the addition of Mark Schwarzer was a shrewd acquisition in firming up the back-up position so regularly butter-finger’d by Ross Turnbull and the ever aptly named Hilario. He may have blundered against Roma in our final pre-season friendly, but five strong years as Fulham’s first choice means, for the first time in years, there will be no reason to panic should Petr Cech’s injury record gain a fresh entry. The young Jamal Blackman looks a solid if inexperienced third choice who gained a great deal from playing matches in packed out stadia during pre-season. As might be expected of a young keeper, his positioning is not always what it should be, but an outstanding tip-over in the Roma game demonstrated his sharp reflexes.
There’s no question that Mourinho has an exceptional pool of talent to choose from for the season ahead, but the main concern is whether that talent can be brought together as a fully functioning team. During his first spell at the club, Mourinho’s success was built around a spine of Cech, Terry, Carvalho, Makelele, Lampard, Essien, Robben, Duff and Drogba, all at or approaching their peak. While the current squad has plenty of talented individuals, they have yet to cohere in the way that made the 04/05 and 05/06 teams so formidable. Back under Mourinho’s guidance, we’ve as good a chance as ever of challenging for the title, particularly with Man Utd and Arsenal struggling to add to squads with more serious weaknesses than ours (Moyes, for all his talent, is unlikely to inspire the same never-say-die spirit which held Ferguson’s United on track last year), but should Pellegrini succeed in bringing stability to Man City, the strength and depth of their expensively-assembled squad must make them favourites for the top.
Nevertheless, while City have the edge in the short term, Chelsea are outstandingly positioned to dominate once Financial Fair Play has (theoretically, at least) restricted the blue Mancunians’ spending power. Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku represent only the first wave of a superbly implemented strategy to cherry-pick Europe’s outstanding talents and give them a few years on loan to prepare them for future first team duties. Thibault Courtois’ experience at Atletico will allow us to make a like-for-like swap of world-class goalkeepers whenever Petr Cech decides to hang up his gloves or move on to pastures new.
Tomas Kalas and Kenneth Omeruo have both been linked with first team involvement this season, but perhaps still need testing in a more challenging environment than the Eredivisie. Nathan Aké took his limited chances well last year, one of the few positive notes of Benitez’s reign, while our pre-season tour of Asia allowed Bertrand Traore to showcase why the club are so desperate to finally make his signing official. He scored his first international goal for Burkina Faso against Morocco on Wednesday, further reinforcing the suspicion that it won’t be long before he’s given his chance to shine in Blue. Patrick van Aanholt and Gael Kakuta look likely to ply their trade elsewhere, but are still a significantly higher standard of player than the reserves offered Mourinho during his first tenure. Anyone remember Nuno Morais? Does Nuno Morais even remember Nuno Morais?
With the manager already expressing his confidence in Chalobah, there’s even a strong contingent of British talent raring to go. Josh McEachran needs a strong season of Premier League football to re-establish himself in the club’s thinking, but his ability to turn defence into attack with a single pass is a talent which could definitely find a home in our squad once the weaker areas of his game (concentration, stamina) are strengthened. Looking further forward, Lewis Baker, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Islam Feruz (attitude issues notwithstanding) and Alex Kiwomya must surely be considered among Britain’s most promising youngsters, with Patrick Bamford and Todd Kane not far behind. Jeremie Boga and Wallace, recently signed on loan by Internazionale, should offer future generations some foreign flair, and it will be interesting to see if new signings Cristian Cuevas and Stipe Perica can reach the high standards expected of them.
Chelsea may not be the finished article quite yet, but with José Mourinho back at the helm and a wealth of young talent ready to take their place in starting elevens present and future, never have fans had so many reasons to look forward to a Blue Tomorrow.
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