By Donal Lucey
The reaction to Chelsea’s 1-0 win over Manchester United on Sunday was puzzling to say the least. The backlash began before the final whistle had even sounded, with United and ‘neutral’ fans taking to social media to voice their outrage at the manner of Chelsea’s victory.
While their tactics mightn’t have been pretty, they were extremely effective and helped stretch their lead at the top of the table to 10 points. But somehow, in the midst of all the discussion online, a debate was provoked. People actually began questioning whether this Chelsea side were worthy of the title. Comparisons were being made with the truly awful side that won Alex Ferguson his last league title.
These people seem to have forgotten that there is more than one way to play football. Would they have Mourinho try to emulate Barcelona’s attacking style, putting entertainment ahead of success in the process? You may not like the way Chelsea are seeing out the season but they should be given the credit they deserve. Looking ahead to today’s big clash with Arsenal, let’s take a closer look at what has made Chelsea successful this season.
Sunday’s win was every bit the tactical masterclass we were expecting from Mourinho, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. It was no surprise to see Kurt Zouma’s name on the teamsheet, with the defender widely tipped to be used to nullify Marouane Fellaini’s attacking threat and he did so very effectively. Fellaini couldn’t move without Zouma tracking, and indeed, challenging him for every ball. If Fellaini attempted to drift out wide, a Chelsea defender would then get to tight to Fellaini with Zouma often acting as cover for them. This allowed Chelsea to keep their shape throughout the game.
After the game Mourinho was quick to champion the efforts of Cezar Azpilicueta, who he said was the best player on the pitch. It’s true that he did a very impressive job of shutting Mata out of the game but it seems that other players roles in the victory were overlooked by some pundits. Many people after the game were left scratching their heads at how Manchester United were able to have 70 per cent of possession but only manage two shots.
It wasn’t just a case of Chelsea “parking the bus”, they stopped the threat at the source. Wayne Rooney and Fellaini were deployed by Louis Van Gaal as the forward players in a midfield three, with Ander Herrera sitting deep. Herrera was meant to play that quarterback role, receiving the ball in deep areas and picking out passes to get them moving forward. To counter this, Mourinho had Didier Drogba and Cesc Fabregas diligently try to block Herrera off from his defenders. This forced Herrera to go out wide and into other areas to try and receive the ball. It did allow McNair and Smalling to venture into midfield often but neither are renowned for their passing prowess.
It was Chelsea that looked the more dangerous team. Every time they launched a counter-attack, Fabregas, Oscar and Hazard threatened the United defense with their speed and link up play.
Mourinho made sure of the game as early as the 67th minute when he brought on Ramires for Oscar. Whereas Oscar had left Ivanovic exposed at times during the first half, Ramires was able to keep Luke Shaw from having the same impact as he’d had on the first half.
It was another example of a well-drilled Chelsea side following their game-plan to perfection. How you could even consider Chelsea as being a weak champion is beyond me when they probably have one of the greatest quartet of defenders in recent memory. But I don’t believe you could even call it a safe performance. Mourinho took a calculated risk putting Zouma in that team. If United had scored first, he would have been left with the wrong players out on the field and an uphill battle looking at the attacking options on his bench.
But Mourinho’s team don’t play this defensive brand of football against all teams. At the beginning of the season, Fabregas and Costa were winning rave reviews for their attacking displays. This has been disrupted since Christmas by injuries and suspensions but Costa has still managed 19 goals, with Fabregas chipping in 3 goals and 16 assists. That’s before we even consider the player that should win the Premier League Player of the Year, Eden Hazard. Hazard has scored 13 goals and eight assists but the crucial statistic is that his 13 goals has also gained Chelsea 14 points. Their attacking abilities are there for all to see. Unfortunately for Chelsea, Costa has only been able to start 24 games and a now 37-year-old Drogba doesn’t offer the same focal point in attack.
If there is any doubt remaining that Chelsea are not only worthy of the title, or are not a great side, let’s put them to bed now. No team has scored more goals per game than Chelsea, no team has converted a higher percentage of its chances than Chelsea and no team in the top six has conceded less goals than Chelsea. They are set to break the record in terms of days spent at the top of the table, which was previously held by Manchester United from 1993/94.
I’m not a Chelsea fan but I respect how they are able to get results in big games time and time again, and you should do. Their results against the top five this season read: W3, D3, L0. Results against the same sides last season are: W6, D2, L0. Are these the statistics of a side that isn’t worthy the Premier League title?
This has been a season where a lot of fans have been disappointed in their teams performances. It has been easy to criticise English teams, especially given their performances in Europe. It seems watching the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City go down to teams that play a more attacking brand of football has caused a reaction from some fans but that doesn’t cheapen Chelsea’s fourth Premier League title.
They may not always play the brand of football we would like but they have been by far the best team in the league this season and deserve credit for it.
Do you think Chelsea deserve their criticism?