On 16th October 2011, Chelsea were riding high. Third in the league only one point behind second placed Manchester United. Next up was a London derby at promoted side Q.P.R, but after a humbling 1-0 defeat was followed by an unconvincing League Cup victory over Everton. A run of bad form began including a humiliating 5-3 defeat at home to an Arsenal side that have been far from their best over the course of the season. This was followed by a disappointing draw with European minnows Genk. The trouble was eased in part by a gritty away win over Blackburn.
All teams go through sticky patches, and Chelsea could hardly be said to be in crisis, but the cloud on the horizon, however, is that Manchester City are streaking away at the top of the table. In addition, Tottenham, Arsenal and Liverpool have all been rapidly improving over the course of the season, not to mention the surprise package that is Newcastle making the top four a very crowded area as the teams jostle for position. All teams mentioned now sit at 22 points, with the exception of Newcastle and Tottenham at 25.
All this taken into account, it was vital that Chelsea achieved a result when they hosted Liverpool on Sunday. Instead, the reverse happened. The team was second best for large parts of the contest, and the final result meant Chelsea have now lost 3 out of their last 4 games, including two home defeats. Gone are the days where Stamford Bridge was a fortress, with Chelsea losing two home games in a row for the first time during the tenure of owner Roman Abramovich. Complicating the situation are reports that new boss Andre Villas Boas is at loggerheads with Abramovich. The Russian is famous for his lack of patience, and is likely to take a dim view of any dissent from his manager. Villas Boas is similarly not used to losing, the defeat against Manchester United was his first as a manager for two years.
The problem is that the Chelsea squad is too stuck in the functional Mourinho/Grant/Ancelotti years. AVB was brought in to improve the aesthetic of the football the team plays, his Portuguese flair was intended to deliver success with style. Unfortunately, the squad has not been up to the task. Fernando Torres has been a well documented flop, the striker only making the bench for the game against his former club. Previously integral players such as Didier Drogba, Florent Malouda and Nicolas Anelka have been disappointing shadows of their former selves, while the much heralded arrival of Romelu Lukaku has so far yielded little reward for the club. In addition, the vaunted Chelsea defence has been incredibly suspect. John Terry has clearly been distracted by off field controversies, while David Luiz is much more potent going forward than he is when tracking back. Ashley Cole, still considered one of the best left backs in the world, was embarrassingly beaten by Glen Johnson for the Liverpool winner on Sunday. It has been suggested that AVB’s reliance on a high defensive line to promote an attacking philosophy is to blame for susceptibility at the back, the ageing defence unable to cope with pacey counter attacking play.
It is not all doom and gloom for Chelsea. New singing Juan Mata has adapted to life in the Premier League well, with youngster Daniel Sturridge forcing his way into the England set up. While not at his devastating best, Frank Lampard has consistently performed at a high level this season. In addition, it is not just Chelsea who are unconvincing, Manchester United have yet to banish memories of their defeat against their ‘noisy neighbours’.
It is far too early to write off Villas-Boas and his team, but the rapidly ageing squad list is going to need a serious overhaul in January if Chelsea are to challenge for the title. Whether or not there is tension at boardroom level, the manager is rapidly running out of time to re-energise his flagging side.