The 2014-15 Barclays Premier League season ended back in May, but in truth, it feels like the gap between the end of last and beginning of the upcoming 2015/16 season hasn’t been too long. Chelsea won their first Premier League title since the 2009/10 season, finishing with 87 points, three defeats, 26 victories and scoring the second-most goals (73) in the league overall.
The question, as we embark on the upcoming season that has all the makings of being a highly competitive one, is can Chelsea become the first top-flight club since 2009, when Manchester United won the championship, to retain their league title? Answers to follow…
The Big Picture
The defending champions will go into the new season confident of repeating their form from last campaign, when they saw off challenges from every one of the title contenders and, as aforementioned, lost only 3 games – against Newcastle United, Tottenham Hotspur and West Bromwich Albion, all of which were away from home – in the entire campaign.
The new season will pose fresh challenges for Jose Mourinho and company, who nevertheless have almost the same squad as last season and probably, on paper, are still better than other title contenders. Therefore, as much as people can claim that other clubs have strengthened and gotten stronger, the Stamford Bridge outfit will still be a tough nut to crack if they get going as they did in the 2014/15 campaign.
Talking of Mourinho, he is arguably ‘the’ best manager in the world and he, you can be rest assured, will make sure that complacency doesn’t develop in his squad after the league and Capital One Cup double of last season. The Portuguese has a squad chock-a-block with fighters, literally, and World class talents right across the pitch, and there cannot be a bigger motivation than to become the first top-flight club of the decade to retain the league title.
Ahead of the new season, Chelsea will not only want to dominate domestically but also, go as far as possible in the UEFA Champions League, as well, a competition in which they failed to progress beyond the R-16 stage last season. They will be in Pot 1, as per the new regulations that see the league winners from the top eight associations grouped in Pot 1, when the Group Stage draw for this season is made on the 27th of August in Monaco, and although you expect a much stiffer competition in the Group stages compared to previous campaigns, Mourinho’s men should be able to progress through to the knockout rounds of this greatest club competition.
Shifting focus to the dimensions of Chelsea’s squad, it will be rather intriguing to see how Mourinho manages his players from one competition to another and whether the players in his first-choice XI can remain fit throughout the campaign. It was one of the marquee facets of Chelsea’s title-winning season, when none of Mourinho’s indispensable personnel – John Terry (38, the number of league games played), Branislav Ivanovic (38), Eden Hazard (38), Cesc Fabregas (34), Nemanja Matic (36), all of whom played almost every one of Chelsea’s 38 league fixtures last season – were injured for large chunks during the season, which in turn meant that the former Real Madrid manager could play with a settled side week after week.
This aspect of squad rotation or the lack of it, therefore, could once again prove to be a massive talking point of Chelsea’s season.
Mourinho hasn’t had to spend as much as last season, when he splashed £91.3m but recouped £75.2m in player sales, and dip into the Transfer Market because, as aforementioned, there isn’t any particular vacancy, or frailty, in the Chelsea squad that need filling.
As a result, the acquisitions have been like-for-like, with the 1-year loan signing of Radamel Falcao replacing Didier Drogba, who departed the club this past May and has now joined the Major League Soccer (MLS) side Montreal Impact, following the completion of his one-year contract at Stamford Bridge; also, in the goalkeeping department, Asmir Begovic has replaced Petr Cech, who has swapped West London and Chelsea for North London and Arsenal. Those two are the major transfers done so far by the reigning English champions, who have also brought in Danilo Pantic from Partizan Belgrade but loaned him to Dutch side Vitesse Arnhem.
They have been staunchly linked with Everton’s John Stones, who has interested Mourinho but Chelsea’s two bids of £20m and £25m have so far been rejected by the Merseyside club. The Portuguese manager might want another central defender as cover for the ageing club captain Terry and that could be the solitary reason for coveting Stones, but it is also reported that the West Londoners do not want to offer beyond £30m for the 21-year old England international. So it is going to be interesting to see what Mourinho and Chelsea make of this situation and whether they shift focus onto other defensive targets if Stones remains elusive.
Chelsea began their pre-season preparations on the 16th of July at their training base in Montreal, Canada. They played their first pre-season game against MLS side New York Red Bulls, who, surprisingly, came out 4-2 winners against the English champions; however, Mourinho’s men turned on the heat against Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) and Barcelona, beating them both on penalty shootouts after enjoying comprehensive 90-minute workouts on the two occasions. Every one of the Blues’ first-team personnel, including the young talent and new recruit Kenedy, got their chances and enough playing minutes, more importantly, to get up to speed ahead of the new season.
Chelsea completed their pre-season tour of Canada and America with a shootout win against the reigning European Champions in Washington DC yesterday. They will be playing London rivals Arsenal this Sunday for the FA Community Shield – the traditional curtain raiser before the official season – at the Wembley Stadium, following it up with another friendly against Serie A side, ACF Fiorentina, next Wednesday at Stamford Bridge before the season begins on the 8th of August.
Mourinho and his players will be happy about the way things panned out over the last fortnight, helping them get in shape ahead of the Premier League title defence.
Pre-season is not when you want to delve too much into the results and performances side of things, but the Belgian duo of Thibaut Courtois and Hazard impressed one and all in their respective trades while Kurt Zouma and Victor Moses put good shifts in, too, and have been the standout players in their club’s pre-season preparations so far.
Gary Cahill and Diego Costa suffered nose and hamstring injuries, respectively, against Barcelona and could be in doubt for Sunday’s Community Shield.
How Chelsea’s fixtures during the season shape up?
The West London club will get its title defence underway against Swansea City at Stamford Bridge on Gameweek 1 of the 2015/16 Premier League season, and you got to say that they have a relatively easy start – first 10 games, that is – to their league campaign. Manchester City and Arsenal are their major opponents in the first 10 league games, with Chelsea facing an away trip to the Etihad Stadium on Gameweek 2 and a home clash against Arsenal on Gameweek 6, which will follow their first Champions League group game on September 15th or 16th.
In terms of their other major fixtures, the defending champions will play Liverpool, at home, on 31st of October, following which they will be involved in Champions League action on Matchday 4 (3rd or 4th of November); a London derby against Tottenham Hotspur, away from home, on 28th of November, after Champions League action on Matchday 5 (24th or 25th of November); and an away clash against Manchester United on the 28th of December will see them complete the first leg of their Premier League fixtures.
None of Chelsea’s major fixtures fall on back-to-back weekends at least until December, though it remains to be seen what sort of opponents they draw in the Capital One Cup – as the defending champions – a competition that they will be involved in from the 3rd Round – because of their involvement in Champions League – beginning on the week commencing 21st of September.
In the second leg of league fixtures, The Blues play the Gunners on January 23, 2016 (Gameweek 23) and against the Red Devils a couple of Gameweeks later on February 6, 2016. Their next key league fixtures against Liverpool (away, on 12th March 2016), City (at home, on 16th April 2016) and Spurs (at home, on 30th April 2016) will be challenging, but Mourinho’s men, by no means, have a tough run-in.
Note: the dates, as well as the fixtures, aforementioned are from the Premier League website; they are subject to change depending on Chelsea’s involvement in various competitions, including the FA Cup, which will begin in the first week of January.
Potential problem areas
As aforementioned, it is obvious that Mourinho will find it challenging if anyone in the spine of his side misses out on action over a period of time due to injuries. Because even though the Portuguese has a clutch of world class players at his disposal, the backup personnel aren’t of the exact same quality as his first-choice players.
Secondly, Chelsea is a resilient side that doesn’t shy away from defending doggedly and achieving cleansheets when they ought to and play against opposition who boast of World class attacking talents; however, having said that, it is always a dangerous tactic – when they get into a shell, and defend in numbers in front of their own 18-yard box – that has the potential to boomerang.
Since Mourinho has returned to Stamford Bridge prior to the 2013/14 season, Chelsea have not been beaten by the likes of City, United, Arsenal and Liverpool – teams you could say have been title contenders during that period – in the league, but there were times in those games when they got into that ultra-defensive mode and their opponents managed to create plenty of chances, only to not harness them and find the back of the net. It may not be so much of a problem area in the upcoming season, but when Chelsea get into that mode, their attacking threat becomes nullified and I would say they have been immensely lucky to come away with a point, on many occasions.
Also, can Loic Remy and Falcao render the same potency as Costa, if the Brazilian-born forward struggles with injuries? It could be a potential problem area for Chelsea, especially come mid-September, when Champions League kicks off.
It is important for Chelsea to get off to a good start in the Premier League, and win, or at least not lose, their early season games against Manuel Pellegrini’s men, followed by Everton and Arsenal. Winning those marquee fixtures will see them gain an inexplicable advantage over their title challengers, for the second season running. Against the mid and lower-mid table sides, they can be more expressive in attack, giving themselves better chances of winning those games.
Chelsea, for me, have to get off the blocks quickly, and given their fixture list, there is no reason why they can’t. Also, if they go deep in the Champions League, that could have an impact on Chelsea’s squad, forcing a reaction from Mourinho and his players. These are going to form the dimensions of Chelsea’s title defence, and it will be intriguing to watch how they combat them.