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Focus on formation, selection define search for Chelsea’s problems


Chelsea’s Portuguese manager Jose Mourinho gestures from the touchline during the English Premier League football match between Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea at White Hart Lane in London on September 28, 2013. AFP PHOTO/ IAN KINGTON RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE. NO USE WITH UNAUTHORIZED AUDIO, VIDEO, DATA, FIXTURE LISTS, CLUB/LEAGUE LOGOS OR LIVE SERVICES. ONLINE IN-MATCH USE LIMITED TO 45 IMAGES, NO VIDEO EMULATION. NO USE IN BETTING, GAMES OR SINGLE CLUB/LEAGUE/PLAYER PUBLICATIONS (Photo credit should read IAN KINGTON/AFP/Getty Images)

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In the wake of Chelsea’s upset loss Tuesday in Sunderland, there’s been a minor media inquisition surrounding the Blues’ ills. And by media inquisition, I actually mean just a whole lot of converge, but the fine-toothed combs the English press are taking to the situation hint the investigation’s started. They’re second place, they’ve won their Champions League group, but after a League Cup exit and disappointing performances throughout the fall, something must be wrong at Stamford Bridge. Time to stop ignoring the problem.

Manager José Mourinho has admitted as much, but after reporting from the Telegraph, we can infer players feel the same way. Are their direct quotes? No. Concrete examples of what’s wrong? Somewhat, but they fall back on clichés like not knowing a best XI or needing a run of games. When you watch Chelsea play, it’s easy to see why neither problem’s solved. At places like striker and defensive midfield, players’ performance haven’t justified forgoing competition. Those issues are symptoms of a different illness.

Striker is the most obvious problem. The Telegraph’s piece notes one cure for the problems Chelsea have with Fernando Torres, Samuel Eto’o, and Demba Ba would be more consistent playing time. Putting aside results as the main way to earn that playing time, who should Mourinho blindly entrust in lieu of proof? Each well established veterans, none of Torres, Eto’o, nor Ba have shown any indication more time will magically make them better. Why forgo the virtues of rest, match ups, and form considerations when no one man seems so much better than another? This complaint seems like a dread “old chestnut.”

Another outlet, The Guardian, has taken a different tact, asking whether a tactical shift will do one good. The site’s tactical analyst even wrote about a potential shift to a 4-3-3 - the system Mourinho always preferred before moving to Real Madrid. With protecting an increasingly suspect defense becoming more important by the match, could playing three true, central midfielders (as opposed to the 4-2-3-1 Chelsea’s run for much of the year) help?

As The Guardian notes, there are a couple of problems with this shift. First, Chelsea’s squad isn’t constructed for this kind of three-midfielder look. Having ruled out a return of David Luiz to midfield, Mourinho has only Frank Lampard, Michael Essien, John Obi-Mikel and Ramires for those three roles. Rotation, flexibility, and offsetting injuries becomes difficult when four men account for three spots. Heavy with attacking midfielders, Chelsea’s squad is build for a 4-2-3-1 look.

The other issue may not be as important, though as the post notes, Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich favors a more attacking game than Mourinho utilized in his first stay at Stamford Bridge. But one thing Chelsea benefactor may enjoy more than attacking soccer is winning. At least, if some of the club’s managerial decisions over the years is any indication, results seem to play a primary role in how the team is evaluated. If Chelsea change approach and start winning, Mourinho would be to argue the shift as a necessary evil.

Other coverage throughout England’s array of outlets also address Chelsea’s issues, but overall, we don’t have many clear-cut solutions. Is formation a problem? Perhaps, but it may be something the squad has to live with. How about style: Should they employ a less attacking approach? Again, with their personnel, that might not make sense.

Settling on a more steady XI? With Chelsea alive in three competitions, that might require tough choices a squad of this depth need not make. And as discussed, why make choices when none of the options have shown they’re capable of holding down the job?

The simplest solution might end up the best one. Players just need to perform better, though rather than wait around for that to happen, Mourinho needs to find the right people, put them in the best roles, and play them in the most-appropriate style. His tinkering hints that’s what’s being done. His results say the process has yet to play out.