Chelsea’s senior squad will end the 2013-14 season without a single trophy, vase or plate. The last time that happened, in 2010-11, the Blues bounced back to win back-to-back European honours and an FA Cup under three different managers, before Jose Mourinho came home last June.
Plenty of people, including Ian Ladyman at the Daily Mail, thought that the return of the Special One would see Chelsea secure their first Premier League title since 2009-10, and for a while it looked as though they would do it. However, a 2-0 loss to Newcastle United in early November exposed the weaknesses in the Blues’ squad.
It was not so much the fact that Chelsea had lost, but it was their capitulation in defeat that set alarm bells ringing. The team failed to find their rhythm, and the lack of a world-class striker in the squad saw chance after chance go begging.
The performance at Newcastle was typical of the one turned out against many of the so-called “small” teams in the league this year. The Blues may have completed the double over Liverpool and Manchester City, and taken four points from Arsenal, Manchester United and Tottenham, but they have struggled against the mid-table sides and relegation candidates.
Had Chelsea won their two games against West Bromwich Albion, they would be level on points with Manchester City at the top of the league. Factor in the defeats to Sunderland and Aston Villa, as well as last Sunday’s draw with Norwich City, and it becomes clear that Chelsea should be home and dry in the title race.
Many are pointing to this supposed failure as a sign that Mourinho is not the manager he used to be. After all, he won back-to-back Premier League titles in his first two seasons at Chelsea a decade ago. What these observers forget is that the challenge is different this time around.
Mourinho is not on a mission to transform a club that has spent decades struggling with debts and sporadic FA Cup success into one of the biggest clubs in the world. He did that 10 years ago. He is not out to make a name for himself as a winner who can take on any league and bring the trophy home. His collection of medals from four countries shows that he is among the greatest managers ever. The task this time is to build a dynasty at Chelsea, to establish a period of dominance to rival that of Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United.
It may have got off to a less than auspicious start, but he is still on course to do that. His sanctioning of Juan Mata’s transfer in January showed that he is not afraid to challenge the club and the supporters in order to achieve future success. He has inherited a squad which contains several players who don’t fit his game plan, and as much as it sounds like an excuse, he has had a woeful selection of strikers to choose from.
All of this will change in the summer.
Simon Johnson at the Evening Standard has reported that Chelsea will look to sign Ezequiel Lavezzi and Mario Mandzukic as well as Diego Costa when the transfer window opens. Any two of those three players would signal a significant improvement on the current trio employed at Stamford Bridge, and it should alleviate some of the struggles that the Blues have had this season.
There will be changes in other areas of the side as well. Thibaut Courtois will return to his parent club for pre-season while Petr Cech recovers from surgery, and he is likely to remain in London next season to challenge the No. 1 for his spot. David Luiz looks to be heading for pastures new, per John Cross at The Mirror, while one of Eden Hazard, Andre Schurrle and Oscar could also be heading for a shock exit according to The Telegraph.
By the start of the 2014-15 season, Mourinho will have had the time and resources to assemble the squad that he wants. The use of Tomas Kalas against Liverpool shows that he is willing to give the youth-team players a chance to break through into the first team, and there are a few more who could follow the Czech into the senior squad. Nathan Ake, Lewis Baker and Ruben Loftus-Cheek all have a good chance to be promoted, while Bertrand Traore and Thorgan Hazard could be recalled from loan.
Having had a full season to assess the strength and weaknesses of his players, pre-season will be more focused for the Special One. He will have identified the inability to cope with large spells of possession against defensive teams and will be able to motivate the players to maintain their winning mentality against opponents of all calibres.
The 2014-15 season will also be much tougher for Chelsea’s title rivals. Liverpool have been unburdened by European competition this season, but qualification for the Champions League will see their fixture list swell. Manchester City will have their squad size restricted as punishment for Financial Fair Play infractions, while the fine for their offences will impact on their transfer-window activity. While City are almost certain to challenge for the title again next season, it is Chelsea who should be favourites.
They were the last English team in Europe for a third consecutive season, that they have avoided the end-of-season rush to qualify for the Champions League that has characterized the last two seasons, and they are a team in transition. As Mourinho said in February, next season is the one that his little horse will join the race.