Chelsea’s hierarchy may have released a statement throwing their “full support” behind Jose Mourinho on Monday, but the very release of such comments was in itself a measure of just how bad things have gone at the start of the campaign. When the club was holding the Premier League title aloft in late May, few could have envisioned such gloom and uncertainty descending upon Chelsea and the most successful coach in their history just five months later.
A 3-1 home defeat to Southampton on Saturday was the latest blow in what has started as one of most disastrous title defenses in Premier League history. Already with four defeats -- more than they suffered throughout all of last season -- in their first eight games, Chelsea sit a lowly 16th in the table. And it prompted Mourinho to launch an incredible seven-minute monologue challenging his employers to sack the “best manager that this club has had” and to prove they won’t change at the first sign of trouble.
It was clear the Portuguese was feeling the heat, having already been dismissed by Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich once before. The club’s statement provided only temporary relief.
“We believe that we have the right manager to turn this season around and that he has the squad with which to do it,” it read.
While supporting their coach, Chelsea also made their feelings clear that any argument that the squad is not good enough held no water. Mourinho has expressed his frustration at the club’s lack of transfer activity in the summer, with Chelsea failing to land Everton defender John Stones, and of the transfers the club did compete only former Barcelona forward Pedro was seen as a player to strengthen the first XI.
Right now it is a squad that appears in desperate need of reinvigorating. The statement, though, suggests that they will not be rushing into the transfer market, regardless of Mourinho’s wishes. The club has generally broken even on their transfer dealings in recent years and so it could take departures in order to facilitate significant incomings.
While the squad currently looks lacking in almost every area, there are two positions where the weakness is most evident. Chelsea failed to land an all-round midfielder in the summer and Nemanja Matic and Cesc Fabregas have struggled to hold the center of the pitch together this season. A player of Paul Pogba’s qualities would be ideal, but a much-rumored pursuit of the Juventus midfielder never materialized. And it is extremely difficult to imagine him being lured to Stamford Bridge when the transfer window reopens in January, especially as he would be cup-tied for the Champions League.
Perhaps William Carvalho, another young, physically gifted midfielder could, as has been rumored, be pursued. The Sporting Lisbon man was voted the player of the tournament at this summer’s European Under-21 Championship and has recently made his comeback from injury.
Mourinho also needs to solve issues at the back. Having taken the decision to drop John Terry, the Chelsea captain returned to the team on Saturday but was culpable in Southampton’s second goal. Meanwhile, neither partner Gary Cahill, Terry’s replacement Kurt Zouma nor right-back Branislav Ivanovic have covered themselves in glory this season.
It could all lead to Stones being targeted again in January. Yet the chances are slim of the England international even wanting to move into a difficult situation five months before he’ll hope to be involved in Euro 2016. Perhaps a more prudent solution can be found in Marseille’s Cameroon international center-back Nicolas N’Koulou. The 25-year-old’s contract is due to expire next summer, so he should be available for a reasonable fee.
But even if Mourinho is given some leeway to spend in January, he will also have to find in-house solutions. He has already hinted strongly that he will shake up his squad following the international break, including handing a chance to young midfielder Ruben Loftus-Cheek.
With almost two weeks until Chelsea take on Aston Villa, Mourinho has a chance to work on plenty of ideas as well as struggling opponents to pilot them against. And that may include going back to the basics he does so well. When Chelsea have struggled in the past, Mourinho has shown an ability to dig them out of trouble by putting even more focus on defensive solidity. Right now that could include dropping the defensive line deeper, thus making the leaden-footed Terry more comfortable. In front, Loftus Cheek and Matic, or Ramires, can provide a protective shield. Further forward Diego Costa will be back form suspension, while it is hard to imagine Eden Hazard’s poor form continuing for too much longer.
Of course all solutions are predicated on Mourinho being able to repair the confidence of his squad. Having taken a hard line with several players in recent weeks, now may be the time for an arm around the shoulder. Mourinho has shown himself to be one of the great man-motivators in soccer’s history, but he now has to show for the first time that he can rebuild the mentality of a squad that reports suggest are becoming increasingly skeptical of his methods.
Do that and there is the quality there to move up the table. For all their poor results, Chelsea’s position is not nearly as perilous as it could be. While it would take an immediate, drastic turnaround to mount a serious title challenge, the top four is far from beyond the Blues.
No team, even leaders Manchester City, have been wholly convincing this season. And Arsenal and Manchester United still have clear flaws that mean they are unlikely to avoid further significant slipups. Crystal Palace currently lead the battle for fourth place, followed by Leicester City and West Ham -- teams that it is hard to envisage maintaining their strong form throughout the campaign. A more traditional top-four contender, Liverpool, is in disarray after sacking coach Brendan Rodgers.
In the most unpredictable Premier League in years, Chelsea have so far been the biggest story. But if Mourinho can come through his biggest test yet, the lack of dominant forces in England’s top flight mean that Chelsea have every encouragement to swiftly climb the table.