Before the season began, I wrote about Jose Mourinho building a squad that would contend with the best of Europe, and perhaps pick up a few trophies along the way. I still think Chelsea are a juggernaut, probably not on par with Real Madrid or Bayern Munich, but definitely not too far behind.
The additions of Cesc Fabregas (who has thirteen assists already, halfway through the season) from Barcelona and Diego Costa (second leading scorer in the BPL) from Atletico Madrid have plugged the holes that prevented Chelsea from winning the Premier League last year. Suddenly, a team that finished third looked like it would rule the league by December.
While that hasn’t been reflected in the standings (Chelsea are leading Manchester City by three points after both teams dropped points yesterday), I still think Chelsea are far and away the best team this season.
They have only dropped points from five matches, with their only loss coming to Newcastle. Coincidentally, the Newcastle match was the only one they played without defensive midfielder Nemanja Matic.
Matic has been an integral part of Chelsea since he joined them in January, with Mourinho stating that the midfielder’s absence in last year’s campaign cost them. Last year, Mourinho was adamant that his Chelsea squad was incomplete, and while most of his focus was on the lack of strikers, it was probably the middle of the pitch that looked the weakest, especially for a Mourinho side.
Matic solves that problem, adding a solid defensive presence alongside Fabregas and allowing Cesc to eschew some defensive duties and stick to doing what he does best and create chances for the forward line, mainly Diego Costa and Eden Hazard. (I’d even argue that Eden Hazard, easily one of the top ten players in the Premiership, is a luxury on this team. The brunt of the offensive burden now falls on Cesc and Costa, when last year it was all on Hazard.)
Another player unshackling Cesc from a defensive burden is Oscar. The Brazilian playmaker, who is theoretically Chelsea’s number 10, is a great tackler, and it is that ability that Chelsea sorely missed against Southampton.
Without Oscar, Southampton could attack Chelsea with minimal pressure coming from the front four. Moving Fabregas further forward was a great offensive move from the Portuguese manager – Chelsea was able to break down the makeshift Southampton defense easily – but Cesc didn’t put as much pressure on Morgan Schneiderlin and Victor Wanyama as Oscar would have, and the two midfielders could pass the ball to Dusan Tadic and Saido “Gucci” Mane.
The absence of Oscar in this game also forced Mourinho to field John Obi Mikel, and on countless occasions, the Nigerian was caught in the Serbian’s area. Chelsea’s balance, in short, was compromised.
Matic’s fellow countryman Branislav Ivanovic, a former utility defender, is another key cog in maintaining balance in the Chelsea squad. Ivanovic has become such an integral part of Mou’s side it forces Cesar Azpilicueta to the left side and the well-regarded Felipe Luis to the bench. He’s not the most offensively gifted fullback in the world (although he has a habit of scoring timely goals), but his defensive capabilities are second to none. And those assets have shined under Mourinho.
The biggest takeaway from the Southampton game is that when Chelsea isn’t as balanced as they should be, when either Matic, Oscar or Ivanovic are missing from the lineup, they aren’t as potent. They rely heavily on the individual brilliance of Cesc, Eden Hazard, or Diego Costa, and while that isn’t necessarily a bad thing (see Chelsea’s goal at St Mary’s), it makes Chelsea less frightening. They go from a well oiled machine scaring the bejesus out of both England and the entirety of Europe to, well, the Chelsea of last year.
And we know how that ended.
(LOL joking they’re still gonna win the league.)