To be honest, it had been a long time coming. The champagne in the dressing room, the scarves and the flags. Grown men jumping and dancing and chanting in glee as the drink sprayed everywhere. Confetti still littered across the field outside. Call them boring if you want, but it’s not Chelsea’s fault they were allowed to coast their way to the title. Don’t blame Floyd Mayweather for the quality of the fight, blame Manny Pacquiao (and his injured shoulder?). Don’t blame Chelsea for being boring, blame the challengers who forgot to challenge.
Chelsea were the favourites from the very start. Jose Mourinho had already had a season to start moulding a scattered squad into something that’d suit him. And it was a very scattered squad, after years of musical managerial chairs and compensatory signings. It’s hard to believe that John Terry and David Luiz used to play in the same team.
Jose Mourinho made a number of signings soon after returning in 2013 but this was never just a one year process. Of that first raft of incomers, only Willian stuck around as a key first player for longer than a season. No, it was in the January window that he really began asserting his visions. Gone were Kevin De Bruyne and Juan Mata, too incompatible, and gone was the aging Michael Essien, formerly one of Jose’s favourites. In came Essien’s midfield enforcer replacement: Nemanja Matic – a man who was on the books for Chelsea a few years ago but was sold as a part of the deal that brought David Luiz to London. That wrong was righted for £21m.
Still, it wasn’t enough to overhaul a rampant Manchester City team for the title. Having sat around second or third for most of the season, they did go top at the end of February after an Eden Hazard hat-trick saw them past Newcastle, but two losses in their next five cost them dearly. A loss to Sunderland broke Mourinho’s incredible streak of unbeaten matches at Stamford Bridge at 78, and although they shattered Liverpool’s hope in the infamous Gerrard Slip came, a draw at Norwich and they finished third.
But that was then and this is now.
Mourinho has this strategy of building a clearly defined first XI, and a clearly defined replacement for each one of those positions. Frank Lampard left as the team’s all-time top scorer. He signed with Manchester City on a free (via their New York affiliate) and was opportunistically replaced by Cesc Fabregas. A day after Fabregas was confirmed, David Luiz was shipped off to PSG for a ridiculously overpriced fee. It’s still baffling.
Samuel Eto’o and Ashley Cole were released, Didier Drogba and Filipe Luis were signed. Straight replacements for each. Demba Ba and Romelu Lukaku were sold, Loic Remy was bought. Fernando Torres took until the January window to find a suitor, but once he left they brought in Juan Cuadrado (who has had a difficult time adjusting to the Premier League, but expect him to be much more effective next season with a pre-season under his belt). Not to mention the re-calling of Thibault Cortois, one of the two or three best young goalkeepers in the world, to fight it out with Petr Cech for the number one. Which he won. It was all so specific, it was all so planned and deliberate. This was Chelsea with a distinct goal of becoming the best team in England and they weren’t willing to cut any corners or take any chances. High percentage stuff.
Tellingly, while the other title contending teams were off playing exhibitions in America, Chelsea stayed continental. They played a few games against European opposition, easing in their key new signings, working on tactical tweaks, but most of all allowing their best players to rest up after the World Cup. Which worked wonders.
Chelsea hit the ground running, bursting out to an early lead with four convincing wins before a 1-1 draw away to Manchester City. Diego Costa scored in each of those first four games, and while the defence didn’t quite sure things up until a little while later, that hardly mattered while Cesc Fabregas was punting assists with every second pass.
Every year there are three main clichés about what it takes to become a champion in English footy. A) You need to dominate against the other top clubs. B) You need to finish strong. C) You need to still be able to get points on the off days.
Two weeks after drawing with City, they beat Arsenal 2-0 at home thanks to goals from Eden Hazard and Diego Costa. A 95th minute equaliser from Robin Van Persie cost them a win at Old Trafford, but they still managed to avoid defeat against the other of the top five sides. A 2-1 win at Anfield in November, a 1-1 draw vs Manchester City in January, two more draws against Arsenal and Liverpool and that crucial 1-0 win over Manchester United in April.
Three wins and five draws. It wasn’t quite dominating but it was crucial to their success. Although they did drop points against rivals, they didn’t allow those rivals to gain any ground by losing. With Chelsea’s ability to grind out wins in other games, limiting the sloppy away days that tend to ruin others (see cliché C)) to a bare minimum, they could afford to take the foot off the gas a bit. But even still, they’ve only lost twice all season in the League, once away to Alan Pardew’s Newcastle in what was far and away the Toon’s best game of the season, and then in what’ll go down in English folklore as The Day That Harry Announced Himself To The World – a 5-3 loss to Tottenham at White Hart Lane. Harry Kane scored twice. That was on New Years Day.
17 clean sheets in 36 games so far. Only 8 goals conceded in 18 home games. Chelsea have trailed for a total of 171 minutes all season, sitting in first place from start to finish. They were first after the opening weekend of games, they’ll be first after the closing weekend. Only for a few days following the second set of fixtures did Spurs slightly nudge them down to second by a single point of goal difference. Chelsea responded by putting six past Everton. Eden Hazard went on to be named PFA Player of the Year, while he and five other teammates made the Team of the Year. Chelsea came to win the Premier League and have done so absolutely emphatically.
Part of the ‘Boring Chelsea’ jabs are down to the cruise to the finish line. Their lead meant they didn’t have to do anything more than battle away to 1-0 or 2-0 wins. Only one of their last eight wins came by more than a goal, that was a 3-1 victory away to Leicester City – those three goals all coming in the second half after Leicester took a late lead in first half stoppage time. The thing is, though, that cruise was a luxury that they’d earned. And it was pretty necessary given the injury struggles of their main man up top Diego Costa. Costa hasn’t played since the start of April, since then the Blues are barely averaging more than a goal a game (8 in 7). In Premier League games where Costa has featured, they average 2.2 goals per game.
Of course the 17 clean sheets also make them look defensive, as does the supposedly low possession rate that they log. Yet CFC are actually sixth in that regard. It’s just in big profile games like the recent ones against Manchester United (30% possession and a 1-0 win) and Arsenal (43% possession in a 0-0 draw) where they actively seem to be sitting back and soaking up pressure. Which is a legitimate way to win an important one-off match - heck, it’s won Jose Champions Leagues before. That ain’t negative, it’s just smart. Especially when your attack is already light-handed. Plenty of other managers could learn that lesson.
And it’s not so much that Chelsea set up to be defensive as they set up to minimise mistakes. This is still a highly skilled attacking side, just cast your mind back to the days of a fully fit Diego Costa. Presumably we’ll see Abramovic getting out the chequebook for another back-up striker now seeing that Didier Drogba is playing like a senior citizen these days. In the meantime, there are no doubts about that midfield with Fabregas running the show, Matic cleaning up and the likes of Hazard, Oscar and Willian bringing it forward. John Terry has had his best campaign in half a decade, and while he and Gary Cahill will always have questions over their individual talent (more Gazza than Johnny), within the shape and structure of this team they are next to flawless. Chelsea make the fewest interceptions in the League, a good sign of a non-committal defence, but they also concede the fewest fouls.
Here’s an example from the weekend against Liverpool. Lallana gets the ball wide, feeds it inside to Coutinho with a bit of space. The Brazilian makes a sharp run with the ball across into midfield, but as Matic pressures him from one side, Mikel shuts him down on the other, so he turns away and passes the ball back to Stevie G… who lumps it forward to an offside Lambert. Ten men behind the ball, no way through. You can keep the ball against Chelsea but it’s pretty hard to do anything with it.
On top of that, they’re not only a brutally good side from set pieces, but they can counter attack with pace too. Take this time. Henderson feeds a strong but unlikely ball to a dragging run from Lambert. Terry follows him, Cahill closes the space that Terry leaves. You don’t really see it well, but Ivanovic is moving across too, the full defence sliding with the pass.
Felipe Luis slides and intercepts it, it falls to Cahill who hits it first time to Hazard, who hits it first time to Fabregas, who feeds it wide onto the run of Loic Remy. Fab’s pass misses the mark and goes out for a throw in, but Remy had drawn the centre back all the way across and only Martin Skrtel remained in the middle. Both Willian and Hazard were making angled runs in-field, if had the pass been more accurate then it coulda been 3 vs 2 and full-on Danger Zoe for Liverpool.
This Chelsea side is not the finished product, however. They’re a couple steps below the best side of Mourinho’s first stint, and they benefitted a lot from the struggles of other clubs. Liverpool never got close to matching their 2013/14 lot without Luis Suarez. Manchester United had their second new manager in two seasons (after two decades with the same bloke previously) and were busy rehauling their squad. Arsenal should have mounted a better challenge but they started slowly and failed against the big sides too often, while Manchester City were let down by injuries and the form of some of their more influential players. They seem like a team transitioning into being a team in transition.
Next time it could all be different. If Arsenal can pick up in 2015/16 the way they’ve finished this season… if Manchester United can add those two or three crucial players, keep fit and continue to build the way they have so far under Van Gaal… if Manchester City can pick up the intensity and keep Kompany/Aguero/Silva all fit (and replace Yaya Toure if he goes)… maybe even if Liverpool can add a superstar frontman and keep Dan Sturridge off the physio’s table…
For now, though, the Premier League trophy is draped in blue.