Over the last sixteen days Chelsea has garnered nine points and passage to the fourth round of the FA Cup. In this impressive period we’ve conceded a single goal and scored eight. There is no doubting the fact we look a different side than the one that fell to Stoke City and Sunderland at the start of December. While some expressed concern about our form and Mourinho’s pension for player rotation, we can now see the fruits of his decision making. As demonstrated by our handily secured victory against them on the 29th, Liverpool peaked too early. Despite their high flying start, the fixture glut of the Holiday season saw their initially thin squad become transparent. Similarly, Arsenal fans must be gnawing their fingernails over the injury of the in-form Theo Walcott. The rough winter period is no friend of Arsenal, as injury crises have a tendency to hamstring our London neighbors during a pivotal time in the season. Then there is Chelsea.
While our opponents are beginning to struggle, we are peaking. That said, it has taken us some time to find our footing. November and early December were gloomy indeed. Despite our wealth of attacking talent, we showcased painful ineptitude in and around the box. We were stagnant. The Special One himself diagnosed this problem, stating our inability to ‘kill off’ games had been our Achilles heel. We lacked the final touch to find a player making an attacking run, and on the rare instance it got there we lacked the ability to capitalize on it. On the other end of the pitch, our defenders, typically sitting on a shaky one goal lead, let their nerves get the better of them and our recurrent struggle with set pieces resurfaced with a vengeance. Luckily, we have Mourinho at the helm and the past few weeks have seen a reversal of fortune.
Several factors have played in to our recent rich vein of form. While other squad’s struggled to cope with their schedule, Chelsea actually benefitted from a flurry of successive games. First and most importantly, we have a squad that could handle the demanding frequency of games. Secondly, we were able to find the rather elusive and intangible benefit of a cohesive rhythm. Passes that previously missed their mark were finding their way to feet, shots that struck woodwork in past weeks were finding twine (sans Lampard vs. Arsenal, sadly. What a belter!) and we just generally looked more positive. This is thanks to the rapid fire fixtures that have allowed us to capitalize on the solid base of momentum that began at our encouraging performance at the Emirates. While the team as a whole began to play much better, the stellar play of several individuals has been a great boon as well.
Eden Hazard has gone from strength to strength this season; adding goals and assists to his already deadly game of skill, forward thinking and pace. Even during our rough spot, whenever the ball was at Eden’s foot Chelsea fans held their collective breath. The technique showcased in his goal against Liverpool cannot be overplayed. He is capable of the sublime at any instant. On the other flank, Willian challenged Hazard’s title as best player of the festive period. Not only has his work rate been incredible, but he has skill, creativity, and pace to boot. His driving runs from midfield have done much to break us out of our prior stagnation. Seeing as both players are peaking in tandem, opposing defenders must be having nightmares about having to face two incredibly quick and skilled players dribbling down both flanks.
Attacking chemistry can be a very cliquey thing indeed, and the flurry of fixtures has given our attackers time to develop an important understanding of one another. In between the two forward thinking attackers, Oscar has been pulling the strings beautifully. His creative passing and positioning have been key in utilizing and exploiting the space opened up by his attacking compatriots. With all three of these players possessing the ability to turn their man and create havoc in the final third, our attack is developing an important sense of dynamism that was previously, and seemingly inexplicably absent. It seems this chance to establish some short term continuity, cohesion, and chemistry may have far flung results for us. With our attacking players finding each other, and more importantly the net, our defenders are no longer making the careless mistakes that often accompany sitting on uncomfortable one goal leads. Thankfully, our back four have now resumed normal service.
Despite this recent upsurge, we must be careful to keep expectations in check. We are an incredibly talented team, to be sure, but we are also still in an undeniable transition period. Young, raw, and talented squad’s like our own have a tendency to be streaky until it finds a solid team and tactical identity Torres and Eto’o have both been serviceable up front but have hardly set the world alight. There is also the ever looming Mata situation. Despite the Spaniard’s undeniable talent, one would be hard pressed to argue the fact Willian, Oscar, or Hazard are all playing so well their bordering on being undroppable. Whatever comes though, Chelsea’s start to 2014 has been a bright one. While our rivals are fading, we are peaking at just the right time.
Contribution by Trevor Aleo