What a difference a month makes. In the early weeks of the Premiership it was simply a foregone conclusion that Chelsea would steamroller their way to victory. Ancelotti had taken the discipline instilled in the Mourinho era, and allied it with a potent offense. Yet Chelsea have now lost four times in the league, and even three points against Newcastle would only see them tied for first with Manchester United. Chelsea are missing key players like Frank Lampard, but what’s of most concern is that they don’t still have the aura of champions.
Of the four teams to beat Chelsea Manchester City and Birmingham did it the old fashioned way. They packed men behind the ball and made sure they only had to score once, although for both teams 0-0 would definitely have been accepted. However Liverpool and Sunderland applied a new approach, taking the game to the champions.
What both teams realized early was that Chelsea are not varied offensively. The absence of players like Frank Lampard and Yossi Benayoun forces them to field a 4-3-3 with a midfield trio largely based on functionality. Most of the creativity comes from Florent Malouda and Ashley Cole while Essien or Mikel are forced to be more attacking than they’re used to. Continuing the trend of predictability, both Malouda and Anelka are both more comfortable coming inside, usually leaving Ashley Cole alone for width. Teams now realize that playing a deep line to guard against the pace of the front three, while playing very narrow will quickly put Chelsea off their stride. Lucas in particular kept Malouda in his pocket the entire game, while consciously looking to play passes through the center of the pitch.
Both Liverpool and Sunderland also played with two strikers against the London side, who are without their preferred back four. This meant one could drop back and link with the very narrow midfield, as well as his partner. Constant pressure against the back line limited Cole’s forward runs and gave both teams the chance to win the ball higher up the field.
It seems Chelsea have left themselves with too thin a squad to cope with the demands of the Premiership. Not only do they miss Frank Lampard, who lets them play more through the middle while giving them another finisher, they miss Michael Ballack. Somebody who does the job that Lucas did for Liverpool, a version of Xabi Alonso with more defensive awareness. They don’t have a pivot who can spray passes around from the middle, Essien was thrust into the role before his suspension, and while he’s not terrible as a creator, he remains someone more adept at defensive duties. Not to mention that the bench, aside from Kalou and Boswingwa, are woefully inexperienced in the top flight.
Some might say that when they get everybody fit again Chelsea will still vanquish all before them. Yet, Terry has already been declining gradually, with an increased reliance on the last ditch tackle. Benayoun, while versatile in offense, is not really a savior. It seems that this season more teams are trying to actually play attacking football, no matter who the opposition is, and it is showing some chinks in the top teams.