x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Mourinho’s Chelsea facing identity crisis in Premier League

One defeat does not make a crisis but it is clear that the Premier League side are filled with more creators than finishers.

Chelsea have fewer finishers, such as Samuel Eto'o, left, than creators of Juan Mata's calibre. Peter Powell / EPA
Chelsea have fewer finishers, such as Samuel Eto'o, left, than creators of Juan Mata's calibre. Peter Powell / EPA

The older, wiser Jose Mourinho is too smart to complain about the hand Roman Abramovich has dealt him. And so, as he reflected upon his first Premier League defeat for six years, the Chelsea manager refused to cite the composition of his expensively-assembled squad. “We have an identity,” he said. “We play with our identity.”

The alternative view is that Chelsea have an identity crisis.

That they have appointed a manager who prizes resolute defending and enjoys swift counter-attacking football and given him a players more suited to an open, expansive game. That they have forgotten the principles that brought them most of the success they have enjoyed in the last decade, from Mourinho’s two league titles to the 2012 Champions League, in a bid to please the purists.

That they have too many creators and too few specialist scorers.

The statistics would bear that out. While Chelsea didn’t play particularly well in Saturday’s 1-0 loss to Everton, they had — according to Mourinho, anyway — 21 attempts at goal.

“Artistic football without goals is not good,” the Portuguese said. Stylish failure is not the Mourinho way; he is more inclined to sneer about others who take solace in easy-on-the-eye underachievement.

For much of his career, he has been a byword for ruthless efficiency. And now?

The endlessly productive Frank Lampard is perhaps the quintessential Mourinho player and when he has 21 shots, the odds are several will end up in the back of the net, but he is in his 36th year and his appearances have to be rationed; he started on the bench at Everton.

The other talisman of his first team, Didier Drogba, is gone but not forgotten. He remains the standard against which all others are measured.

At Goodison Park, Mourinho idly wondered, if Chelsea hit long balls, who would win them: Oscar, Juan Mata, Eden Hazard? Of course not, but the unspoken answer was that Drogba would have done and Chelsea’s “baby Drogba” could have done. Except that Romelu Lukaku has been loaned to Everton and, while he was ineligible to face Chelsea, the Belgian was missed more by his parent club than his temporary employers.

Some at Goodison Park were idly wondering if Lukaku will score more league goals than any Chelsea striker this season.

He did last year, when borrowed by West Bromwich Albion. If there is not an embarrassing sequel, it will probably be because Samuel Eto’o has rewound the clock.

The 32 year old debuted at Goodison Park; his approach play was excellent, his finishing appalling, like some strange hybrid of the Chelsea Eidur Gudjohnsen and the Chelsea Fernando Torres.

Mourinho reflected on his side’s lack of a killer instinct and then said: “Samuel was a killer all his career.”

The choice of the past tense may have been accidental but it was interesting nonetheless. Signed after Wayne Rooney, supposedly Mourinho’s only target, stayed at Manchester United, “second-choice Sam” has to prove more than a consolation prize or another Torres or Andriy Shevchenko, a forward with a great reputation but whose decline accelerated at Stamford Bridge.

Meanwhile, Willian, the other recent addition, went unmentioned. The Brazilian is an excellent player but, in a squad overloaded with attacking midfielders and wingers and where Mata is already struggling to get a game, his arrival brought to mind an unusually colourful comment Mourinho’s predecessor Rafa Benitez made about the Valencia board.

“I was hoping for a sofa and they bought be a lamp,” said the Spaniard.

Now Willian may be Mourinho’s lamp, rather than his shining light: few £30 million (Dh175.7m) signings have been needed less. The money might have been spent better on a striker, a centre-back or a central midfielder.

And the thought occurred that Manchester City’s more balanced squad, with a greater contingent of goalscorers and more physical power, might have suited Mourinho better. That City, like Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur, have also lost a league game, indicates that Chelsea are far from alone; one setback need not bring an over-reaction.

Yet defeat to Everton highlighted the fault lines in Chelsea’s planning and the size of the returning manager’s task.

Mourinho has a brilliant analytical brain. Finding a way to win is his specialist subject. The Chelsea he created were serial winners. Now the question is: is that identity still intact?