Few in the footballing world would have predicted that five games into the new season reigning Premier League champions Chelsea would be languishing just outside the relegation zone, and yet Jose Mourinho’s side have accumulated just four points from their opening fixtures. They lie in seventeenth position with only a single win to their name – their worst start to a top flight campaign since 1988.
Fans won’t be calling for Mourinho’s head just yet; the season is still in its infancy, and realistically Chelsea stand as little chance of battling relegation as high-flying Leicester City do of challenging for the title. Nevertheless, any hopes of retaining their crown have been severely hampered by such a poor start. Last season’s runners-up Manchester City sit comfortably at the top of the pile with an unblemished record, 11 points ahead of the champions.
The question of how the players that won the league last season can be experiencing such a change in fortunes isn’t as puzzling as it may first appear. Chelsea are proving correct the old adage that if you aren’t moving forward, you’re moving backwards. In a league as fiercely competitive as England’s top flight, consistent progression is everything, and a squad capable of winning almost all their games one year can see their dominance quickly fade if improvements don’t match other teams in the division.
You don’t have to look very far back to find a precedent to Chelsea’s problem. In 2013 David Moyes began his unsuccessful tenure of Manchester United, inheriting a squad which had won the Premier League with four games to spare the previous season. Despite spending over £60 million, Moyes made few changes to the squad, with only Juan Mata and Marouane Fellaini managing to break into the first team. While questions about Moyes’ tactical aptitude are obviously highly important in dissecting United’s worst top flight showing in fourteen years, the immense difference in the standard of key individual players makes it seem unlikely that the squad could have retained their title with any manager. Another year in the legs of a player can have a significant impact on his performance, and the signings brought in to supplement the team proved insufficient.
Chelsea are suffering from a similar stagnation. A defence so ruthlessly efficient that they spawned a deluge of jokes about “parking the bus” last year has already conceded twelve goals. Terry and Ivanovic are 34 and 31 years old respectively, and have both received criticism for their performances thus far. Although 20 year-old Kurt Zouma has played well when needed at the heart of the defence, Chelsea’s failure to acquire an experienced centre back to challenge Terry and Gary Cahill could come back to haunt them.
Mourinho’s forays into the transfer market have done little to inspire confidence. While the signing of Pedro for £20 million is undoubtedly a wise business decision, Chelsea’s other dealings are less impressive. The acquisition of Radamel Falcao is a gamble given his mediocre form at United, and while Asmir Begovic is a competent and experienced Premier League goalkeeper, he represents a clear step-down from the outgoing Petr Cech.
The result of this is a largely unchanged squad with a distinct lack of top-level cover in goal, defence or attack. In contrast, City have spent over £90 million on attacking talent in the form of Raheem Sterling and Kevin De Bruyne, as well as buying cover for midfield and defence.
While it seems unlikely that a squad of Chelsea’s quality will fail to qualify for next season’s Champions League, no team has ever won the Premier League after a start so poor, and it remains hugely contentious whether they will be able to mount a serious title challenge. It’s early days yet, but it seems inevitable that Chelsea will have to add some fresh blood come January to avoid being left behind by big-spending rivals.
Image courtesy of Ronnie Macdonald.