Every week in the Premier League is a big week but it is rare to find one this significant so early on in the season. Champions Chelsea welcome title opponents and London rivals Arsenal to Stamford Bridge this Saturday with some big questions to answer following a dismal start to the season. Last week’s loss away at Everton left Chelsea and boss Jose Mourinho with just four points from their opening five fixtures: the club’s worst start since the 1980’s.
Arsenal, by comparison, have enjoyed a reasonable start to their league campaign, fourth in the league with ten points from their opening encounters. However, questions are being asked of players from both teams ahead of this match. Chelsea have been poor in all areas of the pitch so far this season with no player being able to put his hand up and claim otherwise. In comparison, Arsenal have been consistently picking up points without necessarily showing their brand of sumptuous passing football.
Branislav Ivanovic and Cesc Fabregas have been at the heart of ire from fans and pundits this term, with both showing an alarming drop in form from the past title-winning year in which Ivanovic especially enjoyed the fruits of playing in every winning game in the league. His play at right-back was highly commended by his fellow peers as he was voted into the PFA team of the year alongside team-mates John Terry, Gary Cahill, Nemanja Matic, Eden Hazard and Diego Costa.
Should Ivanovic Be Dropped?
The rapid decline in Ivanovic’s performance is of real concern to the Chelsea faithful. Not only is he looking visually slower and afraid of players with pace, his stats also back up a decline in performance. So far this season he has won just 49% of duels with opponents, this is in comparison to a 56% success rate the previous season. (Source: Squawka).
As the regular Chelsea watcher will instantly recognise, when pressured in and around the box he has taken to backing off from the attacker, arms clasped around his back, and turning away when a shot or a cross is made. This example of making yourself as small as possible is not a good one. Ivanovic has a reasonably sized derrière, but even poking this out with his arms behind his back is no substitute for standing up big and tall and engaging the opposing forward.
The drop in performance is as puzzling as it is alarming. By rights, Mourinho should be pragmatic and remove Ivanovic from the firing line against Arsenal. The thought of seeing him exposed against a combination of Mesut Özil, Santi Cazorla, Alexis and Theo Walcott is a worrying one for Chelsea fans.
Baba Rahman started his first game for his new club this week in the UEFA Champions League against Maccabi Tel Aviv. Although Maccabi were poor, and were by no means the quality of Arsenal going forward, Rahman played well. He did the simple things right, and could be in a position to play left-back, allowing César Azpilicueta to return to his natural right sided berth.
Given that Chelsea are missing Filipe Luis — sold back to Atletico Madrid after just one year — they are short of defensive cover and giving up on the Brazilian early is looking likely to have been a mistake by Mourinho. Luis is an experienced professional and having the option of him as left-back and Azpilicueta on the right would make Mourinho’s decision to drop Ivanovic easier.
Cesc Fabregas is another in very worrying form. Many observers will tell you that they don’t remember Fabregas having played well since last Christmas and to my mind they are right. His tally of 2.7 chances created per game in 2014/15 is down to just 1.6 chances per game (Source: WhoScored) so far this year and his influences on games are diminishing.
With Mourinho not being able to sign any replacement midfielders, the central midfield of Chelsea is looking a bit light of spark and control. Ruben Loftus-Cheek is a good prospect but is not yet ready for the demands of a Premier League season and John Obi Mikel and Ramires look out of sorts and look like they are lacking the confidence and trust of their manager when out of the pitch. With Eden Hazard looking like an imposter of his former self, his displays so far this season haven’t been a patch on the player who was so revered last season; exciting fans around the country with his flashes of skill and shows of trickery.
There is something going wrong at Chelsea this season and it is difficult to know where the heart of the problem lies. Is it the lack of signings? Mourinho has previously stated that he hadn’t even seen centre-back Papa Djilobodji play before the Senegalese signed for Chelsea, apparently at the behest of Guy Hillion, Chelsea’s French scout. Is it the Eva Carniero situation? The popular Doctor relegated from her role with the Match Day squad instead restricted to a role at the training ground and away from direct first team duties. She was popular with the players and the change of medical personnel could have disrupted the team.
A 4-0 win against Maccabi will have temporarily staved off some of the pressure from Mourinho, especially due to Arsenal’s surprise loss away at Croatian side Dinamo Zagreb, Arsene Wenger making six changes from the side that beat Stoke at the Emirates on Saturday. Olivier Giroud was sent off after just 40 minutes as the Gunners dropped important points at the start of their Champions League campaign in a group that includes Bayern Munich and Olympiakos. A win for Wenger will be his first over Mourinho in the Premier League, and would be only his second in 15 meetings between the pair.
A huge game in prospect at Stamford Bridge with lots at steak; local pride and bragging rights, reputations of the players and managerial mind games, as well as the issue of a mere three league points to play for.