After a few pieces about Gaelic football to kick off the blog, thoughts now turn to the start of the Premier League and why Jose Mourinho’s third season at Chelsea may see him with little alternative but to place his trust in youth…
After lifting the Capital One Cup back in March, Jose Mourinho paused to reflect on the achievements of his side in delivering what was his first piece of silverware for two seasons. Special praise was reserved from the special one for what he termed his “new generation of players”, those he had not worked with or won with in his first spell at the club. It was a theme he returned to in May once the premier league had been secured, claiming his double-winning side were “succeeding a fantastic generation”. These are players of undoubted ability like Eden Hazard, Cesc Fabregas and Nemanja Matic – all central to last season’s dual successes, built upon sparkling form in the first half of the season and given a fresh impetus with the Serbian’s arrival around the turn of the year.
However, in the closing run from spring onwards the early-season exertions appeared to have taken a toll. Draws with Southampton and Burnley, and narrow victories over Stoke, Hull and QPR all bore signs of fatigue. In particular, players like Fabregas and Oscar who had been so influential in the demolitions of Everton, Swansea (both home and away), and Spurs were now much more subdued and it was broadly left to the defensive resilience of John Terry and creative genius of Eden Hazard to secure results. While an ability to avoid defeat when not at full tilt is generally seen as the mark of champions – and make no mistake that Chelsea were absolutely worthy champions last season – it did raise concerns over how they would start this league campaign with a truncated off-season and a global, gruelling pre-season tour.
Indeed, Jose himself queried how they would evolve over the summer period. In the same breath he praised his new charges, he was already wondering how they would improve further. When the question was raised about his new-look side dominating English football for the foreseeable future, he deflected the question by expecting a much more competitive environment. “How can you speak about domination when everyone knows what will happen next summer?”
So what did happen over the summer? While Arsenal have only upgraded their goalkeeping position to date, Manchester United, Manchester City and Liverpool have all invested heavily with further recruits expected before the close of the transfer window. In addition to this, the vastly increased TV revenues are now shared wider among the league than ever before and this has enabled sides further down the table to attract a calibre of player hitherto restricted to the European elite. This new-found competitiveness in the transfer market has resulted in an expanding middle-class, where the arrival of international quality players such as Yohan Cabaye, André Ayew and Xerdan Shaqiri will ensure a stiffer test in encounters beyond the regular top 6. Squad depth will be critical to cope with the challenge.
The obvious hallmarks of successful Mourinho sides have been mental fortitude and unity among personnel (on the pitch at least). Central to developing those traits has been a reliance on a small, core group of trusted players. That approach can build close bonds which are conducive to success, but it makes integration of fresh talent or wider squad rotation rather more difficult. Players such as Romelu Lukaku and Kevin de Bruyne are glaring examples of prodigious talents who could not be developed within the confines of the Mourinho structure, and replacing them with players such as Loic Remy and Juan Cuadrado looks foolish at best. To compound that – although beyond Mourinho’s control – it is farcical that a talent like Matic was already on the Stamford Bridge books before being re-signed less than three years after departing for Benfica at enormous cost.
Therein lies the rub for Mourinho – reconciling his preferred approach to team development through a small number of experienced, high calibre players (more often than not clients of Jorge Mendes), with a club scouting structure that is built upon large volume intakes of some of the world’s best young talents. With 28 players from Chelsea’s youth and reserve sides spending time on loan this year, its arguable whether this represents a natural step in player development or a means to securing compliance with financial fair play regulations through a “buy ‘em cheap, stack ‘em high” policy.
The rumblings in the press thus far have been that Abramovich is focussed on balancing the books to some extent and concentrating investment on stadium redevelopment. With just under two weeks remaining of the transfer window and no established signings currently on the horizon, it may be left to players like Kurt Zouma , Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Bertrand Traore to convince Mourinho the time to really bring through the next generation has arrived.