Chelsea will take on West Brom on Monday night with the Premier League title already long since secured and the primary objective now being to further enshrine their legacy. It has been one of the most dominant seasons ever in the Premier League, with Chelsea having surpassed the previous record for the number of days spent atop the table in a single season. Indeed, Chelsea have been either top or joint top since an opening-weekend win over Burnley. Rarely has their title victory been in real doubt.
In his second season back at Stamford Bridge, José Mourinho has delivered England’s ultimate prize. And in terms of history, it is only the Portuguese’s first Chelsea team that comes close to competing with the current version in the reckoning for the club’s greatest ever.
This team’s credentials are certainly strong. The key moves toward landing Chelsea’s first title in five years were done last summer. After Mourinho’s first season back ended in disappointment, decisive action was taken in the transfer market. In came Cesc Fabregas to add an extra creative dimension, while Diego Costa provided the presence and efficiency up front. And far from simply being a typical Mourinho, safety first, reactive side, at the start of this campaign Chelsea played comfortably the most attractive soccer in the country. In their first four Premier League games, they scored 15 goals, including beating Everton 6-3 and Swansea 4-2. Some of the linkup play between Fabregas and Eden Hazard was scintillating and the finishing of Costa unnerving.
By the end of November Chelsea’s lead was eight points over holders Manchester City and to many the title already effectively on its way to Stamford Bridge. Then came the only wobble as City stunningly pulled level on New Year’s Day. Chelsea’s 5-3 defeat at Tottenham to bring in 2015 proved the turning point and very much the start of the team’s second, contrasting, phase. With the lineup showing signs of fatigue after very little rotation, Mourinho reverted to a style he does best and with which he clearly remains most comfortable.
In the following 15 games that took Chelsea to the title they didn’t lose once and conceded just eight goals, fittingly sealing the championship with a 1-0 win over Crystal Palace two weeks ago. There was much to admire in the effectiveness of Chelsea as repeatedly they got desired results without being close to the free-flowing form they displayed in the first half of the season. Perhaps only Mourinho in the modern game would be capable of grinding out results so efficiently to lock down a title.
The ability to excel at two contrasting styles in the space of a single season marks this Chelsea team down as something special. Yet the performances in the latter stages of the campaign also brought accusations from many that Chelsea were boring -- hardly a word new to describing Mourinho’s teams. In the court of public opinion, at least, this Chelsea side will not be remembered among the very best of the Premier League era.
On 84 points with two matches remaining, Chelsea stand to claim 90 points, putting them above the 86 reached by the club’s last title winning team in 2009-2010 season. And that side under Carlo Ancelotti, despite scoring a Premier League record 103 goals, finished just a point clear of a Manchester United team struggling following the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo a year earlier.
Only title winners once, in 1954-1955 when they still lost 10 of their 42 matches, it is Mourinho’s first era where this current Chelsea side meets its main competition for the honor of the club’s greatest. Mourinho landed the Premier League title in each of his first two seasons. Perhaps more so than points, the best barometer for comparison comes from Chelsea’s performance in the Champions League and the strength of their competition in the Premier League.
In Mourinho’s second title winning campaign, 2005-2006, Chelsea, like this season, suffered a disappointing Round of 16 exit from the Champions League. Also, like this season, their rivals at home were far from the strongest. Manchester United were second nine years ago yet had finished bottom of their Champions League group and were still in the midst of rebuilding their side around young players like Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney. This season, meanwhile, no English team even made it into the Champions League quarterfinals. And all three of Chelsea’s closest rivals, Manchester City, Arsenal and Manchester United have been desperately unconvincing at various points of the campaign. As dominant as Chelsea have been, the competition has not exactly inspired anxiety.
That wasn’t the case in Mourinho’s season in England. Liverpool won the Champions League, beating Chelsea in a controversial semifinal, despite finishing fifth at home. And Arsenal were coming off the second ever unbeaten league season in English soccer history. They began the following campaign strongly, too, boasting Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires et al. Yet Chelsea won the Premier League by a full 12 points after losing just once. With 95 points, their average of 2.5 points per game is still a record in the history of England’s top division. Led by an incredibly resilient defense marshalled by John Terry and William Carvalho, Chelsea conceded just 15 goals in 38 games. Going forward they could be thrillingly effective, as well, based around the pace down either flank of Arjen Robben and Damien Duff.
There was simply no let up from that Chelsea team. Very rarely did they give the opposition a chance. This season that wasn’t quite the case, given a midfield imbalance early in the campaign that made them a little too open and Gary Cahill lacking the same consistent security alongside Terry that Carvalho provided. It is those areas that could well be corrected this summer to make next season’s Chelsea an even more ominous prospect for their rivals and the history books.