For so long remorseless to the point of seeming invincibility, Chelsea have shown a surprising fallibility over the past fortnight.
After the 0-0 draw at Sunderland in their previous away fixture, their defeat at Newcastle United on Saturday has cut their lead at the top of the Premier League to three points. The question then is, are they suddenly vulnerable? Is this a blip or are they really stuttering?
Certainly, Chelsea will be glad not to have to go back to the north-east in the league this season, but it’s not just those two away games that have raised doubts.
Although they went on to win comfortably, they had been under the cosh until Eden Hazard put them ahead against Tottenham Hotspur after 19 minutes of their most recent home match in the league.
The aura has dissipated somewhat; for a few weeks at least, teams will not face Chelsea with a sense that defeat is inevitable—although Hull City, their opponents on Saturday, could hardly have been more supine in losing at Stamford Bridge on the opening day last season and seemed as intimidated as Steve Bruce sides often are when facing Manchester United two weeks ago.
Beyond the psychological aspect, though, has much gone wrong? Diego Costa has not scored in his last four games in all competitions, which clearly makes a difference, but all strikers go through slight lulls.
There’s been a sense that he hasn’t liked the physical attention given to him first by John O’Shea and Wes Brown, and then by Steven Taylor and Fabricio Coloccini—and he was fortunate not to be sent off against Sunderland—but all the signs until then suggested he’s capable of handling himself physically.
Much was made of the absence of Nemanja Matic last Saturday, the suggestion being that Jack Colback might not have been able to exert the control he did had the Serbia international, who is far more mobile than John Obi Mikel, been there to check him.
Stats from WhoScored show Mikel made a tackle, two interceptions and a key pass against Matic’s season average of 3.4 tackles, 2.1 interceptions and 0.6 key passes (although given how little of the ball Newcastle had and how rarely Chelsea had to win it back, perhaps those figures are less significant than they appear).
That said, Chelsea still played pretty well, dominated large swathes of the game, had 65.9 per cent possession and 26 shots to Newcastle’s nine—eight-to-three on target. Eden Hazard hit the woodwork.
Play the game 100 times and Chelsea would have won more often than not. It’s certainly not something to panic about.
Where there may be an element of concern is that so many of the goals Chelsea concede seem to be similar.
Of the 13 goals they have conceded in the Premier League, eight have come from crosses or set plays. That’s something of a surprise, given how dominant Gary Cahill and John Terry—and Thibaut Courtois—appear to be in the air, and perhaps it says more about opposing teams being able to find space to cross behind Branislav Ivanovic and Cesar Azpilicueta than it does about the clearing abilities of the central defenders.
That is perhaps the biggest difference between the Chelsea of this season and Mourinho’s last Chelsea title-winners: Paulo Ferreira and William Gallas, the full-backs in that team, rarely pushed forward at all.
Given the additional attacking options offered by the forward surges of Ivanovic in particular, that’s probably a price worth paying.
There are concerns about whether Mourinho’s refusal to rotate will ultimately cost his side. Perhaps it will, but Chelsea are better than anybody else in the English game at resting with the ball, at going 2-0 up and killing a game so they expend less energy. Fatigue should be less of an issue for them than any other club playing as many games.
The Hull match seems the perfect game to get back on track. With Manchester City improving, this season will perhaps not quite be the procession it was threatening to be, but even after their recent wobble—four points from three games—Chelsea look the most balanced and efficient side in the Premier League.