As Jose Mourinho waxes poetic in press conferences about beautiful, young eggs and taking veiled shots at Rafa Benitez, Chelsea have a match to play against Fulham Saturday evening at Stamford Bridge. While the Cottagers record against the Blues is woeful, having one once in 34 years and having not won at Stamford Bridge since 1979, Chelsea are off to their worst start in the Abramovich era, having just 7 points from 4 matches. In addition, after the loss to Basel midweek, the Blues have now opened the season with three defeats, to Bayern, Everton, and Basel, and have lost two in a row. It’s not a crisis, but it is cause for concern.
Fulham aren’t in the best form either, with 4 points in 4 matches, and the cries to sack Martin Jol are out in full force. Because of that, this is a side that Chelsea should really bounce back against, especially given that Fulham have not changed that much since last year.
It’s the form of the opponent, the lack of any real changes on their part, and the fact that the Blues desperately need a win that will make me look at this match and article a bit differently this week. Instead of focusing as much attention on Fulham, though I will look at one or two changes I’ve noticed this year, I will pay attention to what I think can be done tactically to change fortunes. The squad isn’t balanced, and there are some square pegs being shoved in round holes. More importantly, there’s just something missing.
The fact that Dimitar Berbatov isn’t playing like Dimitar Berbatov is a major concern for Fulham fans.
This season, Dimitar Berbatov has not managed to score a single goal in the four matches that he’s played. While he’s a question mark for Saturday’s match with a hamstring problem, the fact that he’s not scoring is a major problem. Darren Bent and Hugo Rodallega were brought in to help him with the scoring load, but the fact remains that everything Fulham do has been built around Berbatov, and frankly, I think that’s when he plays at his best.
This season, he’s not been quite as effective. It could be the hamstring problem, or it could be the fact that he’s had to play with either Pajtim Kasami behind him in the number 10 role, or that he’s had to come deeper to accommodate Bent. Whatever the problem, tactically or otherwise, if Fulham can’t get the best out of Berbatov, they’re in real trouble because he’s been the focal point of the attack for so long.
Perhaps Jol is trying to change stylistically, but to this point, it’s not worked for Fulham.
Scott Parker: Midfield Saviour.
Fulham’s major problem last season was the lack of strength in the midfield with the departure of Moussa Dembele to Tottenham at the start of last season. This season, to replace him, they brought in Scott Parker from Tottenham and picked up Derek Boateng on free from Olympiacos. Boateng started in the first match, the victory over Sunderland, but since his arrival, Parker has started the past three league matches.
That has proven to be a rather large problem from a tactical sense because his partner, Steve Sidwell, tends to be a more energetic version of Parker, but there is no ball winner in that midfield, unless you factor in the fact that Sidwell is willing to stick the boot in.
In that sense, the weakest point to attack of Fulham is their midfield because you either find Kasami playing in front of Sidwell and Parker, or you have Berbatov playing in the number 10 position in front of Parker and Sidwell. None of those combinations are very solid defensively, though they are capable of picking out passes. That speaks to why they are able to possess the ball for spells of time, but sometimes lack a cutting edge and an ability to win the ball back when they lose it.
Jose Mourinho must settle on who his starting 11 will be going forward.
One of the main concerns for Chelsea is that I don’t think Mourinho quite knows who his best 11 players are, and I think it’s led to some really disjointed performances over the opening month of the season. In the first six matches that we’ve played, Mourinho has selected six different starting 11s and has made no fewer than two changes in each from week-to-week. To me, that’s led to a lack of consistency in the play, and it’s no wonder that the passing rhythms look a little out of touch so far.
Given that the players are adjusting to a new manager and a new style of play, it’s not really helping them with all the chopping and changing. However, outside of Oscar and maybe Hazard, you could make the argument that in the front four positions, no one has really taken the initiative to stake a claim to their place. Andre Schurrle was the closest, but against Everton showed a lapse in sharpness both with his final ball and in front of goal, and his position is under threat from both Willian and Kevin De Bruyne. Juan Mata’s tribulations this season have been well-documented, and after the Everton performance, you wonder what his future in the squad may be, as he’s not really effective in wide areas, nor does he support the midfield in defence and make supporting runs beyond the striker enough for Mourinho’s liking.
Until Mourinho decides on who his best 11 players are, I think we see more of the stop-and-start play that we’ve seen over the first month of the season.
Chelsea have a real problem on the right side.
One real problem in this Chelsea side is that they don’t really have any players that are either natural on the right side of attack or can play effectively there on a consistent basis. Right now, Schurrle, De Bruyne, and Willian have been the candidates out there, but none of the three have been entirely convincing on that side. Victor Moses was one that was comfortable out on the right, but he’s out on loan for various reasons, and I don’t think he was quite good enough with either his final ball or his decision making to stamp a place on the side.
That becomes a real problem, especially when you play Branislav Ivanovic on the right, because in Jose’s system, the full backs don’t overlap nearly as much as they have under past managers. They still get forward when necessary, but they’ve been taking a much more reserved approach as to when to get forward and when not to.
If your right-sided player prefers to start further inside without the support of an overlapping full back, you’re essentially giving up the right flank as a means of attack. Schurrle’s been the closest to giving that threat and width, but he may be in the Mourinho dog house for a bit after his Everton performance.
Now, what exactly is wrong with Chelsea?
After the match against Basel, it was clear that something just wasn’t working. Against Everton, you could argue that we were unlucky to go into the break down a goal when we had at least two good opportunities to score. Against Basel, two moments of magic from Oscar, one that resulted in a goal and one that still has the crossbar shaking could have sent us on our way to victory, but we conceded two goals late on.
I was one that didn’t believe Mourinho and thought he was downplaying Chelsea’s chances this season when he said that this team was a work in progress and that we might not enjoy the successes immediately, and that it would take some time. However, after seeing the first few matches, I think he might just be on to something.
The hallmark of his first stint in charge at Stamford Bridge was not just the pace and power and physical nature of the side as the media likes to remember. The hallmark was the never-say-die attitude that permeated through every member of the squad and the ruthless efficiency with which they carried out defeating teams.
This squad, however, doesn’t quite have that same mentality. When he talks about the “young eggs,” I think he’s referring more the mental side of his players rather than the skills or the knowledge of the players in footballing terms. His previous teams, including Inter and Porto, have all had this almost heartless style of playing. They stepped on the pitch with the intent of imposing their style of play on you and then breaking your will by frustrating any attempts to beat them by adjusting on the fly. It’s no secret that managers during that first reign at Chelsea had the belief that if you went 2-0 down to Chelsea, the game was over, no matter how much time was left.
That, to me, is what’s missing in this squad. That intent to step on the pitch knowing that you can beat an opponent with your style of play and whenever you break the opposition down, you take it with collective ruthlessness. That’s one thing Barcelona’s great teams over the last few seasons have done, and that’s what Mourinho’s teams in the past have done. Until this squad finds a way to develop that same arrogance and ruthlessness to their play, results will always be slightly inconsistent and the manager will continue to have to find ways to get it.