Chelsea fans can still be optimistic about this season. They’ve already used up many of their lifelines. However, in yesterday’s match, there were glimmers of hope. Chelsea dispatched Maccabi Tel-Aviv with little to no trouble, outscoring their opponents 4-0. However, the manner in which they did so makes the victory all the more impressive.
Jose Mourinho made six changes to the squad that lost to Everton 3-1 at the weekend. These changes included the absence of John Terry, Branislav Ivanovic, Nemanja Matic, Pedro, John Obi Mikel, and Diego Costa (although the Spaniard re-entered the match after Willian’s injury).
To fill in these places, the Portuguese tactician gave Ruben Loftus-Cheek his first start next to Fabregas in the pivot, and also awarded Baba Rahman his first Chelsea start. Furthermore, Oscar made his first start after recovering from an injury, and Loic Remy made his first start since the Community Shield. Cahill re-entered the picture to partner Kurt Zouma at center back and Azpilicueta slid over from left back to his more natural position at right back.
The effect of these changes were immediate and overwhelmingly positive.
Chelsea pushed Maccabi Tel-Aviv on the back foot right from the start, and pressured them throughout the match. It was a Chelsea display that fans became accustomed to during the first part of last season.
As Mourinho mentioned in his post-match press conference, they didn’t beat Barcelona or Real Madrid, but the effect may still be valuable for the rest of Chelsea’s season.
We saw the emergence of several talents, and quite possibly even a formation change. Oscar was described on the teamsheet as a defensive midfielder alongside Loftus-Cheek, with Fabregas taking up position on the other side. This allowed Chelsea to play a 4-3-3 (on paper). In actuality it looked as though Oscar split his time, pushing forward into a no. 10 role, but also having the license to come back and receive the ball from deeper on the pitch and be a threat from further back on field.
This took some of the creative pressure off of Fabregas, allowing the Spaniard to have his best game of the season thus far. He seemed more willing to get on the ball, and more dangerous when he did. He linked up with Costa in the second half to gain his first assist, along with tapping in a rather easy open net goal to get on the scoresheet.
With Oscar putting pressure higher up the pitch, coupled with his influence further back, it allowed Fabregas more creative license. It seems that a key to Fabregas’s success, is the role Oscar plays in the attack.
However, the relative emergence of Fabregas is two-fold. It wasn’t just due to Oscar’s return.
It was also helped by the deployment of Ruben Loftus-Cheek in the midfield. The young Englishman was relentless the entire match, winning several tackles, and essentially pestering most of the Maccabi attackers into making mistakes. He allowed Fabregas to focus on attacking. In the meantime, the Englishman and his tall, strong frame, took care of the heavy lifting.
He also proved that he can be an effective box-to-box midfielder, Ramires 2.0 if you will. When he won the ball, he immediately looked to go forward, yet he did so effectively. He linked up with several attackers, and always looked threatening with the ball at the top of Maccabi’s 18-yard box.
While it is only one performance, against “Not Barcelona and Real Madrid”, the signs of true class are there. It may be too early to expect this type of performance week in and out from the youngster, but there is no doubt that Loftus-Cheek has a lot to offer Mourinho throughout the course of this season, and for years to come.
Moving on to the defense.
Baba Rahman’s debut was undoubtedly a positive one. Part because of the skill and youthful exuberance he displayed going forward, and part because we are not used to Chelsea playing with a natural, left-footed, left back. He finally looked as though he belonged in his position, not that Azpilicueta hasn’t but he hasn’t been able to get forward as much as he did in his more natural right back position.
Baba also held up defensively, won several tackles and helped to sure up Chelsea’s somewhat fragile defense as of late. This was helped by a solid performance from Cahill and Zouma, coupled with Maccabi’s weaker attacking ability. It will be interesting to see how the Ghanaian international holds up against a strong Premier League team, or a stronger European team, but only time will tell. For now, he has done enough to be strongly considered to keep his place against Arsenal.
The biggest takeaway from this match are Chelsea’s emerging options. Early on, they have looked thin at the back. However, we are now seeing that Begovic is more than capable in net, and Zouma looks ready to take on a larger role this season. Furthermore, Baba Rahman has proved himself as a realistic option for this season.
Mourinho can now utilize Loftus-Cheek more often, knowing that his work ethic has improved. There is a strong chance for him to make an impact in most matches during the campaign. He also has Oscar back now, and that is vital to Chelsea’s success. Remy didn’t look too bad up top, and Costa might have found his shooting boots.
If Hazard is able to get on form, and Willian is healthy in a few days, coupled with the addition of Pedro and Matic into the thick, and all of a sudden, you’re talking about a team that is capable to get back into the thick of the title race in the Premier League.
It’s early on however, and it’s only been one promising game. Strong performances will need to become habit and players like Hazard and Ivanovic will need to find their form. That being said, if they are able to do so, I think it’s far too early to count out last year’s champions for the title. Furthermore, I back them to make a Champions League run, given the relative ease of their group. Chelsea are not done yet, not even close.