Every year your urged to resist the temptation to make pre-season judgements. The preparatory friendlies that clubs play throughout the Summer represent a contextless world and it’s often folly to draw any sort of conclusion from them.
Sometimes, however, it’s impossible to overlook a deficiency and, as a case in point, Chelsea’s issues at forward will be as pertinent during the season as they have been during the build-up to it.
There was a telling moment on Sunday afternoon. Having made Chelsea the clear favourite to win the Community Shield, the bookmakers collectively reacted to the announcement that Diego Costa would not play by pushing their odds all the way out to 2/1.
Every other regular first-team player was available, Arsenal were still missing Alexis Sanchez, but that one absence at the top of the formation shifted the entire line – with the effect that Chelsea walked onto the Wembley pitch as underdogs.
It was dramatic but, ultimately, it was also a very astute observation.
Clearly, Costa provides Chelsea with goals and so his hamstring injuries create a literal, obvious problem for Jose Mourinho. Aside from his ability to change the score, however, the Spaniard has become such an important part of the side’s attacking shape, that the cost of his periodic injuries is far more than his individual worth.
And this is a very real problem. Rival supporters will sneer and are unlikely to have any sympathy for a club who have staked their shelves with enormously expensive players, but this is a very significant problem – and it’s clearly the biggest threat to both Chelsea’s title-defence and their European ambitions.
But, while Costa’s rubbery hamstrings cannot be helped, the club’s failure to create some depth underneath him is entirely their fault. For whatever reason – and with the season two days’ away – Mourinho is still having to rely on Radamel Falcao and Loic Remy to provide a level of support that looks increasingly beyond them; neither are capable of matching Costa’s goal-return and, more importantly, neither can replicate his mastic-like qualities at the top of the formation.
The latter issue is the more important. Chelsea may not have played particularly well during the Community Shield or against Fiorentina last night, but they had enough possession to win both games relatively comfortably. In each instance, their performance was characterised by their ability to move the ball up the pitch and into wider areas with relative ease, but also by their inability to translate that semi-control into anything of real significance. Time and again, they entered the final-third with neat build-up work, only to play their way into the teeth of the Arsenal teeth.
The game may have been played at a pre-season pace, but Chelsea were still staggeringly blunt.
At their best, Mourinho’s side is extraordinarily precise. While they may have individual players who are capable of extraordinary things, some of their most impressive – and decisive – moments last season were derived from neat interplay between two or more attacking players – a one-two, a clever flick, or a lay-off and then a quick move into space. Think of the goals scored against Manchester United and Arsenal at Stamford Bridge, at Burnley at Turf Moor, or away at Palace; not all of those involved Diego Costa, but they each provided an illustration of how Chelsea score goals and how they’re able to carve through stubborn defences.
Because Mourinho’s side are so strong, most of their opponents are instinctively negative. They surrender a lot of possession, they commit very few numbers forward and, typically, they try to eliminate space in the middle of the pitch.
That was the case last season and it will inevitably be so again this year. To counter that, Chelsea have to be incredibly accurate within small pockets of space to be successful – and they must be so for the entire season, not just when live on Sky against the more accomplished teams.
Consider this Cesc Fabregas goal against Queens Park Rangers in April:
It’s not a chance which arrives because of a defensive error or because of a one-on-one mismatch, it’s an engineered goal. Eden Hazard and Oscar may use their individual abilities within the construction, but if the passing and movement isn’t timed to split-second perfection, then Fabregas is never in a position to shoot.
That game finished 1-0 and that’s the standard required, even against a team as defensively hopeless as QPR.
At the moment, that chemistry is being interfered with. Any time an unfamiliar player is introduced into a team’s line-up, he will inevitably create a degree of imbalance but, in this instance, that imperfection is being accentuated by the stylistic shortcomings of the players being used to replace Diego Costa.
Loic Remy is a forward-facing player. Occasionally, he does show a fleeting ability to spread the ball wide or bring supporting players into the game, but his touch and instinct are typically unreliable whenever his back is to goal.
Radamel Falcao is a slightly different case. He will never return to be the player he once was, but he is theoretically capable of being the kind of accuracy-based focal-point that Mourinho requires at his forward position. But, while he can roll into the channels and while he can recycle and progress attacking phases of play, he’s incapable of doing that at the moment: his mind is cluttered, his feet are like lead and his touch is heavy.
At the moment, playing either creates a roadblock at the top of the pitch. Chelsea may look very accomplished at the back, in deep midfield, and in semi-advanced areas, but once they reach the edge of the box their play becomes ponderous; the movement is tentative, unsure and badly-timed, the right off-the-ball angles aren’t being created and, predominantly, that’s because of the ill-fitting parts being used at centre-forward.
Diego Costa is a wonderfully eclectic player who is as close to the modern forward ideal as any manager could want. Clearly, then, it’s not possible to use another player to exactly replicate what he provides, but Chelsea have still so far failed to come anywhere close to doing that.
They must go back into the market before the window close or their season will end up being defined by how many games Costa is able to play this season.