The Season So Far
Up there with the very worst and most embarrassing title defences in Premier League history, Chelsea’s 2015-16 season has been an unmitigated (and extremely amusing) disaster. The first half of the campaign was characterised by José Mourinho being an absolute d**khead and alienating everyone around him, while the second has been one long, slow, meandering drift towards the finish line. The only good news for the Blues is that the season is nearly over, and they can soon start thinking about the future and forgetting that this whole sorry ordeal ever happened.
Indeed, Chelsea have been so bad for so long now that it’s easy to forget that they are the reigning champions. The collective is now widely accepted as a weak one, but it’s worth remembering that in July 2015 most observers, this writer included, were tipping the Blues to retain their title. No-one saw this coming.
The individual declines of Branislav Ivanović, Nemanja Matić and Eden Hazard have been especially shocking – the Belgian forward scored his first league goals of the season last weekend – and rumours abound concerning the futures of several key players, most notably Hazard, Thibaut Courtois and Diego Costa. The good news story of Leicester City has dominated the media for what feels like forever, but Chelsea’s collapse is surely equally notable.
The Final Few Games
Given the sense of drift at Stamford Bridge, a host of injuries and an evident lack of motivation on the part of some players, there was some hope that interim boss Guus Hiddink would use the remaining dead rubbers to blood youngsters. This being Chelsea, it hasn’t happened. Given the circumstances, he really should have opened the door for more products of the club’s feted academy to pick up minutes. As it is Ruben Loftus-Cheek has impressed in spells, Bertrand Traoré has done really well, but the less said about Matt Miazga’s debut the better. That’s about it.
Going into the final few games – Hiddink’s final few before Antonio Conte comes in, let’s remember – there is little to play for besides pride. They are still playing split-personality football: terrible in one game, awesome in the next. The likes of Pedro, Cesc Fàbregas and Eden Hazard seem to have woken up, but it’s all too little too late and the feeling that yet another meek collapse is coming is hard to shake.
Whereas they won last season’s title with two distinct setups, one conventional attacking 4-2-3-1 and another more defensive one, this season has seen neither one nor the other. The aim was presumably to play the first way again, but there has for so long been so little pressure applied in midfield, such numbingly slow build-up, such a lack of explosiveness and invention throughout the team, that whatever lineup has been used they’ve generally seemed like eleven guys with no idea what they’re supposed to be doing.
Worse, the conventional "big team" setup combined with the lack of intestinal fortitude on show has left their slow centre-backs exposed all season, and hasn’t generated anywhere near enough chances for Diego Costa and company at the other end. In terms of characteristics and moods, it’s almost like Spurs and Chelsea have swapped identities.
Their underlying numbers were never quite as bad as their results, but they still aren’t exactly great: defensively, 407 shots faced is the 6th lowest figure in the division, which hints at a certain level of quality and a decent overall setup, while 285 shots faced from inside their own box is a similarly semi-respectable number; their attacking output, as we’ll see below, is similarly fine but unspectacular – not genuinely disastrous, but equally not the figures of reigning champions or current challengers.
In terms of finishing Chelsea have been good, recording an above average 9.8% conversion rate and scoring fully 31.7% of their shots on target. This confirms the obvious: that if nothing else, they still have high quality individual performers. If only they could motivate them to play at 100% every week and play as a team, they might actually get somewhere.
The obvious weakness is as an obvious lack of balance, cohesion and guts. They often seem unbelievably open and meek off the ball, and their defensive actions figures seem to back this perception up: 20.6 tackles per game, 14 interceptions and 10.9 fouls are relatively low numbers. A number of low points stand out but the defeat away to Everton at the start of the season, when Steven Naismith was allowed the freedom of Goodison Park to score a hat-trick, was perhaps the nadir. There was no pressure on the ball at any time and Everton seemed to have all the time in the world in midfield.
While such problems haven’t been quite as commonplace as it may appear, they’ve had more than one game like that, and their less-than-dynamic defence has been very easy to play through. In short, it’s been too easy for teams to generate good chances: 152 shots on target conceded is a poor figure – comparable to Norwich, Watford and Swansea – and Courtois and Asmir Begovic have had average seasons. For a club of Chelsea’s stature, a 72.3% save percentage is horrible.
The lack of cohesion is not just evident without the ball: in attack, 474 total shots taken is the league’s 7th highest figure, but only 285 have been from inside the box, and only 149 of the overall figure have hit the target. For the reigning champions, that’s miserable.
Expect a familiar eleven, with little rotation from the side that destroyed Bournemouth last time out. Given the number of injuries and the good display last weekend, there’s little reason to change anything and wholesale changes would only remind everyone in blue that their season effectively ended months ago.
Leicester City could be champions by the time the game is played and that could have a detrimental effect on Spurs. Equally, Leicester could have lost and put the belief back into Spurs’ players. Chelsea come into the game knowing that a good display and a good result would end Spurs’ title hopes either way, something their fans would undoubtedly revel in, and so a draw feels pretty inevitable.