Are Chelsea finally playing to win?
A quiet confidence has started to return to Stamford Bridge, for the first time since Jose Mourinho crashed back through British Passport Control.
January 9th, 2014
After an impressive Christmas and New Year period, there is a feeling that Mourinho has brought back his Chelsea of old: hard-working, considered, incredibly difficult to beat. Only Manchester City, far and away the only Premier League team to look likely champions this season, have a better recent form than the Blues.
It should be remembered that the emotional state of the Chelsea fan generally switches between boundless optimism and end-of-the-world pessimism on a regular basis. Sometimes this can happen several times during a match.
The present run, since defeat at Stoke on 7th December, has included four wins and a draw from five league games.
Chelsea have looked more assured in defence, and more creative in attack – though the issues still remain with that final connection between the ball leaving the £30m playmaker’s foot, and it hitting the back of the net (unless it goes direct).
These haven’t all, on paper, been the toughest fixtures: but, lest we forget, Southampton away was three points the previous manager sacrificed in the pursuit of a cup he never actually went on to win.
And at the other end of the scale of difficulty the draw at Arsenal, like that to Manchester United at the start of the season, looks in context to have been a carefully considered result: procured by Mourinho almost at the point of team selection.
In those two games alone, it is possible to see that Mourinho has a better grasp of priorities, and how to achieve them, than we’ve seen in a manager at Stamford Bridge for a while.
It says a fair bit about the confidence surrounding the club that the next game, away to Hull, is being seen as less of a potential banana skin than might usually be expected. (Being mindful that such pride often comes before a fall).
Last season’s interim stint saw Chelsea gain just one point from nine on visits to newly-promoted clubs. And that point (away to Reading) even managed to feel like a defeat.
This is Mourinho’s first attempt this season to overhaul the total.
He has shown before that developing a consistency in gathering these sort of apparently bread-and-butter points is far more significant, in the story of a season, than a barnstorming win (or even, in the case of AVB, defeat) at the home of a title rival.
The plan is to get three points from each game: all from the opposition when facing teams below; one for yourself, and two by omission from the other side, when travelling to sides considered title rivals.
And that takes us on to the visit of Manchester United.
They may be champions, for now, but they are under no stretch of the imagination title rivals.
They will, of course, up their game at Stamford Bridge. But being at home, and knowing what we have learned about David Moyes’ team since August, one would expect Mourinho to set his team up for a win – just as he will at home to fellow mid-table battlers Stoke seven days later.
As the manager keeps saying: this team are a way off being real title-material yet. Which is not to say they don’t have a chance: stranger things have happened.
But with a couple of judicious additions, and a full season without the need to be coaxed out of the bad habits left by others, it is now possible to envisage what this ‘transition’ might become.