Letter from America: Can it get any worse?

For a while, Chelsea seemed to be out of favour with Fox Sports so that for some weeks they hardly figured at all. In the last couple of weeks, however, things have improved, at least in this respect. I have been able to watch all of Chelsea’s recent Premiership games, starting with that against Manchester United. To be precise, I did not exactly watch all of that game, or even much of it. I overslept and because of its 8am start in local time, I missed the first 20 minutes or so. So imagine my disgust when switching on the TV of immediately seeing our lads give away a really dumb goal. Off went the TV again and if anything large and heavy had been at hand, the offending instrument might never have recovered (my wife understands that before a game, lethal objects should be moved from my immediate viewing area. In this respect, this year is much worse than last). I went off to have breakfast and otherwise restore my equanimity, and was relieved, when finally I switched back on of seeing the replay of Chelsea’s equaliser. The remainder of the game was definitely Chelsea’s, but from all accounts, they had been pretty miserable in the first half.

The next game was Bolton, and for large stretches, they played reasonably well i.e. dominated, but looked unable to score a second. The last ten minutes were very bad and though they did not deserve it, Bolton could easily have snatched an equaliser, if not a winner. Coming closer to the present, I watched all of the Arsenal game. Though most observers gave the first half to Arsenal, Chelsea still had the best opportunities, while the second half, up to and after the Gunners’ goal, belonged almost exclusively to Chelsea. At times, they even played moderately well, though again their finishing was lamentable. As games go, it was certainly one of the best Premiership games I have seen this season, but it has not much competition in this respect.

I have just finished watching the Newcastle United game, my fourth in two weeks. If Chelsea played badly, either wholly or in parts, in all of the previous three, this one was simply dreadful. One miserable goal, and that a little lucky, against a team that was not really much in the way of opposition. It was not as if Chelsea conjured up innumerable chances. Yes, Arjen Robben twice came close, and there were a couple of headers, but if I were Jose Mourinho, I would be getting a little worried. It seems to me that what was missing was commitment and imagination. Commitment because for long periods, most of the Chelsea players appeared to be off playing somewhere else. They certainly did not seem to be at Stamford Bridge. Compare Didier Drogba with any of his peers once he came on, and you can see what I mean. He was everywhere, fought for every ball, came back to take it off his own players when he felt that the tempo needed upping. He showed commitment, a desire to get the job done, which with the exception possibly of Robben and Michael Essien, seemed to be lacking elsewhere. Passes went awry, no one seemed to understand what anyone else was doing, we were reduced to putting in long balls forward rather than constructing moves as is our wont. Compare too the efforts by Newcastle in the first half where they tried hard to get forward and make life difficult for Chelsea. That they achieved little was not in itself a surprise, but they tried, they really did. If Chelsea had shown half that desire to attack their opponents, the score line would have reflected it.

That Robben provided nearly all that was imaginative we have come to expect this season. We are sorely missing Joe Cole who provides the flair that is so noticeably lacking elsewhere. I had hoped that Michael Ballack would provide this, but in spite of what Mourinho believes, I find him anonymous, and seldom able to influence a game, though he does commit large numbers of silly fouls, the difference between the Premiership and the Bundesliga perhaps. The same has to be said of Andriy Shevchenko, who for all his good running, is a finisher and not a creator, and he is getting very little chance at present to prove the former. Neither is Essien a creator, though he is a wonderful destroyer, so in midfield, it all is up to Frank Lampard. Great player though he is, he cannot both create and score especially as he touches the ball a lot less than he did in the last two seasons. I thought he had a fair game today, better than in some recent matches.

As to tactics, last night we attempted to restore the good, old, 4-3-3, but given that Mourinho thought Newcastle to be pushovers, we played Salomon Kalou and Shaun Wright-Phillips up front with Robben. Cleverly, and until Charles N’Zogbia was injured, Newcastle eliminated this latter by double teaming the right-back with James Milner, and that effectively removed our only potent threat. With N’Zogbia gone, and Milner moved, Robben found space and Chelsea thrived. Until then, we were limited mainly to balls up the middle which is more and more our new style when playing Mourinho’s beloved diamond formation. Well, it is possible that one day, the four members of the diamond will figure out how to play together, two of them becoming in effect wingers, but they seem desperate at the moment all to merge into a narrow group in central midfield that has the effect of forcing our strikers out wide where no one can believe they can really be effective.

Kalou had a reasonable game, I suppose. He buzzed around a lot, had at least one excellent chance. He is young, and scored a ton of goals in Holland last year, so why does he not score a few for us? This is the second Dutch player in recent years to have the same problem. Is the Eredivisie that much easier to score in? Or did Feyenoord play to his strengths? As for poor Wright-Phillips, and regardless of what he himself expresses, if he is to achieve anything as a player, he really will have to go elsewhere. Two outings this week and both have been miserable. He is a good player, but I doubt we shall ever see it in blue. It’s not as if there isn’t cover in young Jimmy Smith who I have read is a half decent player.

As for the defence, it is clear that there is no real solution at the moment to the right-back problem. Paulo Ferreira really does not cut it any longer, Khalid Boulahrouz is a converted central defender who can defend but cannot attack, something that is vital when adopting the diamond (for otherwise, where does the width come from?), and Geremi is a converted midfielder who does a pretty good job but against top notch attackers, finds the defending part hard. Maybe Glen Johnson is the answer after all, since he seems to be having an excellent season with Portsmouth. On the left, Ashley Cole is a very able defender, and he does push forward a lot, though when it comes to getting the ball into the red zone, Wayne Bridge is far superior. We ought to play him more. On the other hand, our situation is probably no worse than most other clubs, the exception being Man United who finally have a stable and excellent back four which is why defensively they are currently our equal. Thank goodness we still have Ricardo Carvalho and John Terry fit. It beggars the imagination as to what would happen if either missed a lot of games.

Where we currently have a major problem is with the goalkeeper. The more I see of Hilario, the more I wish him well elsewhere. Carlo Cudicini is a reliable substitute when fit, but we miss Petr Cech more than I would have thought. Not having an outstanding keeper is destabilising at the best of times. Newcastle’s best efforts came when Hilario did not assert himself in the area (the header off the bar, a cross from Milner that was flapped at, another that was dropped, a mix-up between Cavalho and Hilario that the former was lucky to clear, etc). If Cudicini is not fit, maybe it is time to give Magnus Hedman a chance. He was until recently a pretty decent keeper.

So what is there to be done? I’m a rank amateur, but I would start with giving Robben a start in every game. Rather than replace Geremi with Essien, I would drop Ballack or Lampard (play only one of them) since they both really play the same way and in the same position. When (if) Joe Cole is ever fit again, I would play him as much as possible, and I would pray that Cudicini gets fit quickly, and pray even more that Cech is fit before the end of the season when it’s really going to matter. Finally, if I were Mourinho, I would put the fear of God up each member of the team much in the way that old Shanks did with Liverpool all those years ago, so that when they went out on to the pitch, they really, really, wanted to win, not just expected to as seems to be the case today.

Does this mean that the Premiership is lost? Of course not, but if Chelsea wants to win something significant this year, they really need to start wanting to, because on current form, they won’t win anything.