Chelsea cake-walked its way to the Premier League title last year.
All the usual challengers were either in a state of transition (Manchester United and Liverpool), apparently lacking motivation (Manchester City), or being Arsenal (Arsenal). Having kept all the important pieces of the same squad together, and with questions still hovering over its rivals, Chelsea is (was?) heavily favored to repeat as champions. But judging by the evidence on display in preseason and in the Blues’ first two performances in the league, we should probably pump the brakes on those predictions.
To say that Chelsea looks a shadow of the dominant team of last season is to put it kindly. It has only been two games, but it has been two games of dogshit.
Despite the fact that Chelsea neglected to strengthen its squad in any meaningful way this summer, part of the reason that so many were willing to install the Blues as title favorites is because of José Mourinho. Mourinho jumped the shark when he (a grown man) poked Tito Vilanova in the eye in 2011, and his antics are now more problematic than they are amusing, but he’s still the best manager in England. After all, the whole point of putting up with Mourinho’s shit is that he guarantees back-to-back titles (before falling out with the owner/president/players/media and leaving for another job).
With the second of those usual titles now anything but sure, Mourinho looks less like a difficult genius and more like an obnoxious bellend.
Mourinho potentially losing his edge is highly speculative, but other problems in this Chelsea team are more readily apparent. The most glaring is the lack of depth. All title-winning teams get to the mountaintop aided by a bit of luck, but last season’s Chelsea was especially fortunate in the injury department.
John Terry—who has apparently found the secret to career rejuvenation through the combined healing powers of adultery and racist abuse—played every minute of the league season. To expect another year of such reliability without securing an adequate alternative is irresponsible.
Kurt Zouma has potential, but he is still too raw to count on. Terry and Gary Cahill might still be the best center back pairing in the league, but an injury or significant loss of form for either—Terry is now 34—could be disastrous.
Even though Terry was hauled off at half time of Chelsea’s chastening loss to Manchester City for being old and slow, he might not even be the most washed up member of the back four. Branislav Ivanović, so long a sturdy and almost faultless presence at right back, has visibly lost a step. Fortunately, Chelsea happens to have another excellent right back on its books. Unfortunately, that guy has been playing at left back the entire time. Switching César Azpilicueta to his proper position is the obvious solution, but Chelsea already sold its only senior left back and signed an unproven kid in his place.
With so few numbers in defense, Chelsea has very little leeway to shuffle.
In midfield, the lack of serious competition is apparent yet again. Nemanja Matić and Cesc Fàbregas are as good a midfield combination as any—until Fàbregas does his annual disappearing act in January—but the only senior back-up/alternative to either of them is John Obi Mikel (he is still a thing—I checked) and Ramires.
And no matter what the question is, Obi Mikel and Ramires are never, ever the answer.
By now, you should be noticing a pattern. Chelsea’s attack looks disjointed and dysfunctional, and surprise, surprise—the depth chart is pitiful. Trading in the corpse of Didier Drogba for the corpse of Radamel Falcao is hardly a move to keep Diego Costa on his toes. Especially given that Diego Costa can’t seem to stay fit for more than a month or so at a time.
Juan Cuadrado should have been that player to compete for a place in Chelsea’s “second line” of attack, but he already looks destined for that scrapheap of Chelsea fringe attackers alongside Kevin de Bruyne, Andre Schürrle, Mo Salah, and so many others.
A late swoop for Pedro is at least a sign of life, but given that he has been available all summer, it’s a move that smacks of opportunism rather than long-term planning.
The only position in which Chelsea has real strength in depth is the one of the least consequence.
Asmir Begović is the most over-qualified back-up keeper in the league this side of Víctor Valdés, but unless Thibaut Courtois has developed a taste for blood and starts picking up red cards on the regular, the big Bosnian isn’t going to see much action this year.
This is a header to make sure you know we’re not talking about goalkeepers anymore
Everywhere else on the pitch, Chelsea’s options are paper thin, and it is already paying for a summer of stagnation.
Does all this mean that Chelsea is suddenly a bad side? Of course not. Mourinho’s first choice XI, fit and firing, is still the envy of the league. But to expect the same 11 players to stay fit and on form, without alternatives of the required standard, is to play with fire. Chelsea’s rivals have not made the same mistake, and the men from West London are in danger of finding themselves left behind.
It’s only been two games, but you know what they say: Life comes at you fast.