Another year, another season that brings hope and ambition to SW6, as Chelsea once more begin their campaign in the hopes of having more parades and more silverware to bring home once again. Winning the Europa League was an okay achievement from last season, but the hope around Chelsea should be that they are never in position to win it again. Along with that ambition comes a desire to improve upon a third place finish and a double-digit points gap between themselves and Premier League Champions Manchester United.
To fulfill the goals of the 2013-2014 season, it’s a trip back in time with the arrival of former manager Jose Mourinho, aka The Special One and now The Happy One and the Godfather. The most successful manager in the club’s history returns with the hopes that he can replicate the trophy success that he enjoyed in his first stint from 2004 to 2007 when he won six trophies in total.
However, the Chelsea he returns to is much different that the Chelsea he arrived at in 2004 and, to an extent, the Chelsea that he left in 2007. Since that time, the Blues have managed to add to the trophy haul with an additional five trophies, including the coveted Champions League, but under six different managers. In addition, the club he left behind was striving to join Europe’s elite, whereas his mission this time is to maintain that status with a club stocked with younger talent.
But that younger talent comes with a bit of experience, with some of the squad having played part in the success of the Champions League and Europa League win, and with every member of the first-team squad having earned at least one cap for their national side.
To open the season, Chelsea welcome Hull City, or should I call them Hull City Tigers, to Stamford Bridge in Mourinho’s return to the dugout where he never oversaw a league defeat at home. Hull won automatic promotion to the Premier League by finishing second in the Championship, but they will face a daunting task to enter a stadium that will be welcoming their beloved manager back to its confines.
This edition of Five Things will cover more about what I expect from the upcoming season than what Hull will do, as I have not seen much of Hull this preseason and only know what they did in the Championship last year, thus I can’t form much of an opinion of what I might see.
Hull City will face a fight to not be relegates, and this match is not a good matchup to ease into the Premier League.
Hull City’s return to the Premier League also marks Steve Bruce’s return to the Premier League after guiding the Tigers to second place last season in the Championship. However, the main concern for Bruce will be that the squad lacked the number of goals that would have ensured easier promotion. Had Hull and Gianfranco Zola’s Watford finished level on points (there was a two-point gap in the end) Hull’s goal differential of 9 would have caused them to miss out on automatic promotion.
Bruce’s concern for staying up should be that in the Championship last season, his side managed just 61 goals in their 46 matches; the lowest of any of the top six teams in the league. His signings this season have done little to improve his strike force and the goals that they suffered with last year. However, he has spent money on players with Premier League experience, albeit journeymen, and has secured the services of Tom Huddlestone from Tottenham.
Will it be enough to ensure their Premier League survival? I’m not entirely convinced given the improvements shown by the two teams that survived last season that were promoted, Southampton and West Ham, and the fact that the other 15 teams are well-established in the league. The Tigers face a tall order, indeed.
Formations, Formations, Formations
As I talk about the ever-popular discussion about Mourinho’s preferred formation, let me preface this by saying we won’t know for sure until Sunday. That being said, it’s important to note that whether the notation is 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, they are both, essentially, an offshoot of a similar philosophy. It’s just a matter of whether your triangle in the midfield points towards the attacking side or the defending side. The inherent principle of what you want to do is actually rather similar in that you still want to outnumber the opposition in the middle and force them wide, while staying compact.
The one thing we know about Mr. Mourinho is that he builds a formation to suit the players at his disposal. In his first stint with Chelsea, 4-3-3 was the preferred base formation, built around the skills of Claude Makelele who may have been the finest true defensive midfielder of his era and maybe all-time. However, that season, when Didier Drogba was absent, he often reverted to 4-4-2, choosing to play Eidur Gudjohnsen off of Mateja Kezman, or vice versa, as neither were as adept at playing as a lone striker as Drogba was.
This time around, he’s blessed with six players who are capable of playing between the lines of striker and midfield, but no true holding midfielder, outside of perhaps Michael Essien and John Mikel Obi. In addition, should you play a 4-3-3, you would have to sit two of those six attacking midfielders every match, unless you bring Kevin de Bruyne or Oscar back to midfield.
I think we see flexibility between 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 with the latter being the base formation, especially given that our strikers are not necessarily built for the former.
The number 10 position will be the key position this season, and I think it will be Oscar’s rather than Mata’s.
I gave this a bit of thought, and I saw a few other articles about the key player being Oscar, but I’ll throw my two cents in. The biggest change that Mourinho made at Real Madrid was bringing in Mezut Oezil from Werder Bremen to play that role. The difference between Oezil and Kaka was that Oezil was a bit more willing to do the dirty work defensively when compared with Kaka. At Milan, Kaka had the benefit of Gennaro Gattuso and Massimo Ambrosini to allow him to concentrate solely on attack. Mourinho’s preference has always been to have a solid center that works. Even when playing 4-4-2 variations with us, Gudjohnsen was capable of doing that job
That’s where Oscar comes in. When compared with Mata, he has many of the same attributes, but he eclipses Mata in his ability to track back and win the ball. Mata is perfectly willing to do so, but he’s not nearly as effective at it as Oscar is. It’s no secret that Oscar was third in successful tackles last season for the club, and that, I feel, is one of the reasons he’ll play that number 10 role.
The strikers are the biggest of the two main concerns this season.
Without the signing of another striker, Chelsea enter the season with Fernando Torres, Demba Ba, and the returning Romelu Lukaku as the strike force this season. The one with the most promise to have an impact is Lukaku, who had a wonderful season last year at West Brom, but still comes with question marks. Last season, he played a lot of matches off the bench and at age 20, still has to prove that he can lead a line with the maturity needed for a top club. While excellent in the preseason, there were a few times when he took up rather strange positions and didn’t link up play as he should.
In fact, that might be the biggest problem that Mourinho faces with this group of strikers. They all play a rather similar style in which they want the ball played through the line for them to latch on to. That might very well be why he’s been after the likes of Wayne Rooney, since Rooney is capable of coming deep and linking play better than any striker we currently have.
I do think that Torres starts this season as the main striker, but I expect someone to come in by September and that all might change.
What will Branislav Ivanovic do and how will it affect the defence?
This is my second concern, in that depending on where Ivanovic plays, it will affect the potential depth of the side. If you play him at right back, it leaves you with only three experienced center backs. If you play him at center back, you have just one senior right back in Cesar Azpilicueta.
While I think he’s better as a right back, it does leave question marks as to who plays between John Terry, Gary Cahill, and David Luiz. Luiz should be a first-choice starter, but the question is who partners him. Ivanovic is the type of player that Mourinho would love to have there, but he’s also the type of right back he likes in terms of defending. The placement of Ivanovic will affect the overall depth of the defence, which we all know is a centerpiece of how Mourinho builds his teams.