It was a season which promised a lot, but one where silverware ultimately evaded Chelsea.
This 2013/2014 season has, yet again, been excruciatingly painful for all Blues’ fans: how Chelsea defy logic to stroll to victory against top teams but succumb to the measly challenges of relegation-threatened sides is staggering. But what has been different about this season compared to recent seasons has been the relative level of calm in the managerial hot-seat, and therefore amongst the fans. The Blues’ faithful have become accustomed to seeing a new man at the helm but it appears SW6’s quota of managerial replacements this season was taken up by their Fulham counterparts.
And, now as the season is over and we reflect on what might have been, what actually can we conclude from this transitional period for Chelsea?
Chelsea’s third-place finish, in perspective, is an improvement on recent campaigns. Last year, the Blues finished third, and actually ranked sixth the year before, only for the Champions League win to save their skin by qualifying them for the following season’s competition. So in this respect, there has been much stability in this team under Mourinho.
But there is overwhelming reason to look at it from the other perspective: a third-place finish is too poor. Mourinho has never finished outside the top two in whichever club he has managed in the last decade, which will mean this season acts as somewhat of a failure by this measure. Likewise, Chelsea led the Premier League table for the second-longest period of time this season, yet bottled it against Aston Villa, Crystal Palace, and more recently Sunderland and Hull City. The fundamental message cannot be eradicated: for all Roman Abramovich’s millions, Chelsea have only won one Premier League title in the last eight years, representing Chelsea as some sort of expensive cup side.
The customary November-December crash seen by Chelsea over recent seasons was conspicuous by its absence this term, but was only really postponed until March-April, where an unbeaten streak of 14 games was halted by Aston Villa on 15 March. That set the slide with a second consecutive away loss against Crystal Palace, even if, sandwiched in-between, Chelsea did manage to put six past Arsenal.
We cannot forget Mourinho’s unbeaten home record was ended against Sunderland, another low-point as Chelsea were outplayed by a side then in a relegation position.
But, for all Chelsea’s problems against the lowly sides, it surely must be encouraging to see the Blues beat Manchester City home and away, and Liverpool home and away too. If Chelsea can maintain this strategic know-how next season, coupled with a more lethal, consistent striker next season who can clear blanket defences, then surely the title is a mere formality.
Europe is where the heart is really at, and it has been very evident this campaign to see that whenever there has been a European match around the corner, Mourinho and Chelsea’s minds have always been directed there. The Chelsea boys seem to always put in their most passionate performances there, over-turning a 3-1 PSG deficit in the last few minutes at Stamford Bridge, but that enthusiasm has rarely been replicated in the league; when Chelsea have been chasing games late on, hope seems to disappear then.
Whilst the Chelsea players leave their hearts out in European matches, so too does Mourinho save his best motivational techniques and strategies for then too — until against Atletico Madrid in the semi-final. A shaky start to the group phase can be put down to it being early in the season and Mourinho still gelling his side, whilst knock-out round wins over Galatasaray and PSG were the work of preparation and tactical intelligence.
The first-leg of the Atletico tie looked so too — 0-0 away from home is an encouraging result — but the simultaneous media pressure for Chelsea to play less defensive football clearly got into Mourinho’s mind when preparing for the next match. The decision to not continue doing something Chelsea are very good at — parking the bus — received criticism from this Blog, as per this post, and with the lack of a brilliant striker to score, it was always going to be a hard ask for Chelsea to shut up shop and nab the goal. Such attacking intentions from Mourinho for the second-leg sadly saw Chelsea bow out.
Chelsea have had great joy in the FA Cup, winning it four times in the last seven years, but never looked sure in this campaign. Unconvincing wins over Derby County and Stoke City saw Chelsea pitted against the formidable Manchester City, and the Blues could not repeat their Premier League heroics against them. The Blues exit this campaign in the Fifth Round and, dependent on the luck of the draw, improvements are surely needed here.
Like the FA Cup, Chelsea bowed out of this competition after playing just three games in it The first two was expected, cautiously seeing off Swindon Town 2-0, whilst the second was encouraging: 2-0 against Arsenal. But the extra-time defeat at the hands of Sunderland will haunt the Blues, especially as they conceded so late in normal time. A bit more concentration here might have seen Chelsea continue their run to the final and, who knows, if Chelsea had won the season’s first major piece of silverware, that might have stimulated further drive going into the March-April months.
Whilst the progress made on the field has not been translated to trophies, it is clear this has been another big season for Chelsea Football Club. The sale of Juan Mata looked unthinkable at the start of the season but it could be argued Chelsea sold him at his peak and, with £37.1 million pocketed, did a good bit of business there, albeit unpopular. Likewise, the development of Cesar Azpilicueta — it takes some doing to displace England’s number one left-back for so long, Ashley Cole — and the progression of Eden Hazard, top scorer with 17 goals, is for all to see, as the Belgian ends the campaign as the PFA Young Player of the Year.
It has been so evident that Chelsea’s defence has been shored up: John Terry looks back to his best and, in Gary Cahill, England has a future leader. Cahill’s season was rightly awarded with a place in the PFA Team of the Year. The stability provided with Branislav Ivanovic, who ends the campaign as Chelsea’s top appearance-maker (50 appearances of this 57-match season) is welcoming too. 16 clean sheets for Petr Cech, too, is only one behind this season’s Premier League high, and it was regretful he had to get injured in the crucial Atletico tie.
So, in hindsight, has it been a terrible season? There has been no demotion to the Europa League, nor has there been drastic and prolonged periods of suffering which called for a new manager. Whilst Chelsea and Mourinho may not have lived up to the hype surrounding him at the start of the season, perhaps the Chelsea fans should have listened to him when he said it would be his second season back before he starts winning the honours? He had better live up to his promise now.