After a productive trip away to Burnley, Chelsea return to Stamford Bridge for their opening match at home. Their opponent is another newly-promoted side in Leicester City, and the Blues will look to put together another impressive performance, albeit against opposition hoping to avoid relegation.
Regardless, it should be a good sign for Jose Mourinho that this year’s team has a bit more ruthlessness to them that perhaps missing last season. Dropped points in away matches against lesser opposition cost the Blues the title last year, and this year’s squad appears to have been constructed to prevent that from happening again. In a 17-minute spell on Monday night, the Blues ripped the heart out of Burnley with 3 goals and showed the kind of resilience after going 1-0 down that was a hallmark of the title-winning sides of 2004 and 2005. Tougher tests will await, but the big matches weren’t a concern last season, and I doubt that they will again.
Meanwhile, their opponents, Leicester, have also started their Premier League campaign well and have improved a squad that was the class of last year’s Championship. A 2-2 draw at home against Everton is a great point to earn to open the season, especially against a team with ambitions to challenge for a top-5 finish. Not only that, but having gone down twice to Everton, they showed the ability to come back, eventually scoring the leveller late in the match.
Leicester is probably the best bet for a promoted side to avoid relegation this season, and it will be interesting to see how they cope with their first big away trip back in the top flight.
Nigel Pearson’s men were impressive last season in the Championship. Can they bring that style of play with them to the Premier League?
Like Burnley, Leicester played a style of football in the Championship that dominated that particular league because of the squad’s versatility in attack, counterattack, and defence. Like Burnley, it will be interesting to see if they can maintain that in the Premier League given that they’ll be at the bottom end this season.
While there are a few similarities, such as both favoring 4-4-2 last year, there are also some noticeable differences. Burnley preferred to stay compact defensively and transition quickly into the attack. Leicester preferred to play possession football, wanting to possess the ball in the opposition’s half as much as possible which they did to great extent last season, spending 32% of the time in that area.
The major question for Pearson to solve is whether or not he can possess the ball in that fashion at the Premier League level. Their first major test of how big the step is comes on Saturday, but their season will be judged on how they cope with the sides around them. Given the nature of their positive play, they definitely could give one or two sides that finished around the relegation zone a problem just by playing football against them.
One of the main strengths of Leicester is that they have genuine pace down the flanks. Regardless of opposition, pace can unsettle anyone, and for a newly-promoted side, it allows you do a lot of things. Riyad Mahrez and Anthony Knockaert aren’t lacking for pace and are quite willing to take on defences. The positive thing is that it allows them to play a counterattacking style, something that they didn’t have to do a lot last season but were able to do when needed. Those two wide men were also able to produce goals and assists from the wide areas, and it will be one of the keys to stop them going forward this year.
The real question for them will be whether they end up isolated on the flanks. With Leicester playing a 4-4-2 last year, it allowed them to play as orthodox wingers, given their superior quality compared to their opponents last year. However, this year, playing 4-4-2 against teams that tend to all play three in the middle could leave you exposed and needing to tuck your wingers inside to defend, especially given the strikers they have.
David Nugent is back in the Premier League, but don’t count out new signing Leonardo Ulloa.
Despite being just 28, David Nugent is another one of those players who has seemingly been around forever. After playing for Portsmouth for many years, he made his permanent move to Leicester in 2011 and has been a fixture in that side ever since. Last season, his 22 goals led the Foxes, and combined with Jamie Vardy, they formed a strike duo that produced 38 goals and won the most penalties in Championship last season.
To start this year, he may have a new strike partner with Vardy out injured. Leonardo Ulloa made an impressive debut against Everton, scoring just 22 minutes into his debut. Despite not being particularly well known, Ulloa has quietly been the leading scorer for Brighton over the past two seasons, netting 23 goals in the process.
The question will be whether both start against Chelsea. They played well together against Everton, but that was at home. Suggestions are that they very well may not, and if that’s the case, Nugent will probably lead the line.
Don’t discount that this team does have Premier League experience.
Outside of QPR, Leicester have players with the most Premier League experience out of the promoted sides. Kasper Schmeichel and Richie de Laet return to the league, along with the aforementioned David Nugent and Paul Konchesky. Adding to their experience and success in the league are Matthew Upson and Marc Albrighton.
Ironically, Upson and Albrighton are both injured, but the rest will most likely feature in the match. Schmeichel, in particular, has bounced back from his unceremonious exit from Manchester City to form one of the best spines in that end of the table with Wes Morgan, Nugent, and Danny Drinkwater, who is also injured and not available.
These players are familiar with the task that awaits them, particularly going to Stamford Bridge which is once more a fortress, even though Sunderland ending the Jose Mourinho home victory run.
Leicester may be facing a team that they’ll have to hope are complacent.
If the Burnley match showed nothing else, it’s that this Chelsea side has a bit more mental steel about them than last year and maybe a bit more flair. Last year’s main weakness was a lack of invention against sides that sat deep and sometimes a lack of tempo about the play. That was not the case against Burnley, with Cesc Fabregas conducting a master class on controlling tempo alongside his assistant Nemanja Matic.
If this is the pattern for the season, the Blues will take some stopping. On paper, this team may have more diversity and variation than Mourinho’s first two title-winning sides and perhaps a bit more style about them. As Burnley found out, getting the first goal this season didn’t prove to be a success like it was last year, and Chelsea simply blitzed them once they went through the gears.
If Leicester are going to get a point, they will have to hope that the Blues suffer the mental lapses that they did last year where Mourinho wasn’t convinced his team were going to be up for games against lesser opposition. Should that mental block be removed, Leicester may find themselves getting their introduction to the Premier League, much like Burnley did on Monday night.