Chelsea’s record breaking start to the season – including a rousing win over local rivals Spurs yesterday – has got fans, journalists and players alike talking up Chelsea’s chances of reclaiming the Premier League title.
At just six games in, it’s a bit early for that – Chelsea started similarly under Scolari last season – but it has been a very encouraging start. Not including the Community Shield, Chelsea have played seven competitive games and won all of them, scoring 16 goals and conceding only 3. Some teams, like local rivals Fulham, were stifled into submission while others, like Sunderland and Burnley, were passed out of the game. Characteristic Chelsea strength, spirit and resolve won the day against Hull and Stoke, while power and skill combined to beat Spurs yesterday.
Without wishing to go over the top, this is a side that has played in a number of different ways and drawn on varying resources to win football matches. The team has played well as a whole and there have been some excellent individual performances too. Carvalho has proved to be worth keeping, avoiding injury so far and putting in a great performance against Stoke, Bosingwa has started this season as he did last and Ballack has started scoring. But, from my perspective, it is the return to form of three key players has paved the way to six league wins out of six.
The most damning indictment on Luiz Felipe Scolari’s time at Stamford Bridge is the complete failure of the Brazilian to get Didier Drogba playing well – or even playing. Presumably due to some kind of personality clash, Scolari decided that the best way to ‘deal with’ what he perceived to be Drogba’s weaknesses was to drop him from the team. He fundamentally misread what Drogba needs to perform well: an ultra-supportive manager. Mourinho wrapped Drogba in cotton wool, told him he was the greatest and made the team revolve around him, and Hiddink’s approach wasn’t dissimilar.
It looks like Ancelotti has selected the right predecessors to emulate. If anything, Drogba has looked better than ever so far this season, scoring five goals from six league games and making five assists (quite exceptional for a striker). The odd drama aside his attitude has been impeccable, too – for me he’s shown far greater willingness to stay on his feet, not question referees and his defensive work has been exceptional (particularly in the Stoke game). On fire as he is now he is entirely unplayable, and provides so much more space for other marauding attacking players such as Anelka, Deco, Lampard and Ballack. I’m going to stick my neck out hugely here and say that, if Ancelotti wants to win silverware this season, the first and most important thing he has to do is keep Drogba fit and hungry.
The Ivorian isn’t the only player in blue to have been rejuvenated this season. Ashley Cole, who like Drogba was starting to come back to his best form under Hiddink, has looked like a world beater since the Hull game. Without setting a foot wrong in defence he has been insatiable in attack, getting forward as he used to with Arsenal. Again like Drogba, his attitude and commitment has been immense, and it’s no surprise that he’s scored three goals in his last seven Premier League games. Not bad for a left back. His constant willingness to bomb down the left has compensated for Chelsea’s lack of width down that side, and allowed Malouda to play a more involved role inside.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning Michael Essien. The Ghanaian returned from injury to great and immediate effect towards the end of last season, but I felt that his form deserted him a little in the last few games. Starting fresh this season however, Essien has added much-needed strength and energy into Chelsea’s often congested midfield, skilfully breaking up play, stealing ten yards and harassing opposition in their own half. He’s not as disciplined as Mikel in terms of protecting the back four, but given freedom to roam he’s a handful. If he’d made more than 11 appearances in the league last season, who knows where Chelsea might have finished.
Before Ancelotti joined Chelsea, there was plenty of paper talk suggesting that his main asset was as a man manager. Milan’s players were supposedly begging him not to leave, desperate not to lose a manager that they also considered a friend. I was somewhat sceptical of his record in Italy but if his defining achievement this season – there are surely other, more tricky problems to come in future years – is to get such improvements as we’ve seen from Drogba, Cole and Essien from the rest of the squad, he’ll have proved a very wise hire indeed.