Chelsea are a popular title favorite this year. Here are two key questions that Jose Mourinho must answer this season if he and the Blues are to live up to expectations.
What Happens if Diego Costa Goes Down?
Diego Costa is the consummate Mourinho player – he is physical, hard working, mobile, and comfortable as a lone striker. He looks to be a perfect addition to the weakest area of Chelsea’s squad. It is a dangerous assumption, however, to believe that his addition solves their striker problems.
As mentioned, Costa is a physical player. He is, however, coming off a knee injury that he rushed back from to play in the Champions League final, only to go straight to Brazil for the World Cup. Even with Spain’s early exit, there are legitimate questions whether he got enough rest this summer. Defenders in La Liga are more physical than is often assumed, but the Premier League remains another beast altogether.
Add to that England’s much-maligned lack of a winter break and Jose Mourinho’s famously high demands on his players, and it appears less and less likely that Costa will be able to perform at a high level all season without regular rotation. Simply look at Arsenal’s treatment of Olivier Giroud last season and how they suffered for it after Christmas; Chelsea need a plan B at striker.
Romelu Lukaku was sold to Everton, Demba Ba to Besiktas, Samuel Eto’o is gone, Didier Drogba looks a shell of himself, and Fernando Torres is still Fernando Torres. Andre Schurrle must step up if Chelsea are to challenge for the title. He was scintillating for his country at the World Cup, and he must bring that verve and confidence to Stamford Bridge. He offers a directness that Chelsea will sorely need come winter.
How does Mourinho Handle his Center Backs?
Last season, Chelsea most often sat deep and looked to attack on the counter. It fit their roster well, with center backs comfortable defending deep and pacey attackers who like running into space. They struggled to break down teams that sat deep though, and have bought intelligently in order address this.
Nemanja Matic, who left Chelsea for Benfica in January 2011 only to return 3 years later, improves their distribution from deep areas. Cesc Fabregas joined this summer from Barcelona, where he led La Liga in assists despite lacking a consistent role in the team.
In order to get the best from these new arrivals, Chelsea must possess the ball more around their opponent’s box. This will allow Fabregas the best opportunity to create, but it begs the question of how the defense will adapt.
John Terry and Gary Cahill, the unquestioned starters in the back, are excellent defenders. They are organized, disciplined, and good in the air; in other words, the perfect players for last year’s system. They are not blessed with great speed though, and do not like to turn and run. If they remain deep, they concede space between the lines. If they push up higher, they are vulnerable to balls over the top. If Chelsea take a more attacking stance this year, look for them to be vulnerable in these areas.
Take Burnley’s goal in the first game as an example. Terry cleared the initial corner, and the defense pushed up to the 18. The ball was then headed back towards Chelsea’s goal, where Matthew Taylor picked it up on the left near the touchline. The back four retreated all too eagerly, leaving acres of space at the top of the box. When Taylor found Scott Arfield there, Cahill was too slow in closing him down and succeeded only in blocking Thibaut Coutois’s vision. It won’t be the last time a lack of mobility and a slowness to move forward cost the Blues this year.
Jose Mourinho knows all this and must rate Kurt Zouma highly, because he is likely to be the first central defender off the bench. Mou has a track record of success in his second seasons at clubs, but unless this troubling lack of depth is remedied in the transfer market, he could very easily face his toughest task yet.