An unfortunate time for Jose Mourinho to return to the club where he made his name, and an even worse time to face Iker Casillas again after their infamous spat. Chelsea’s difficulties on and off the field this season don’t really need introducing anymore, but another defeat in Mourinho’s homeland would probably do greater damage than a win would arrest Chelsea’s fall.
He made several changes from the team that drew with Newcastle in a performance he described as “minus one out of ten” – the most notable absentee being Eden Hazard and domestically banned Diego Costa the main returning player as they switched from 4-2-3-1 to 4-3-3. Porto also lined up in a 4-3-3, although Giannelli Imbula had to push up higher onto John Obi Mikel due to Chelsea’s formation change so Ruben Neves frequently dropped in alongside Danilo.
Likely because of the nature of their opener, it was mentioned a lot post-game that Porto had targeted the out-of-form Branislav Ivanovic, but it wasn’t really true. Yacine Brahimi left him a mess on several occasions but, while Brahimi generally stayed wide, he wasn’t alone in this and Bruno Martins-Indi isn’t really the type of player to add to that threat in support. It was the opposite side that Porto really looked to overload, with Maxi Pereira getting high on the right to allow Andre Andre to run diagonally inside behind Vincent Aboubakar.
Nevertheless, Porto weren’t really taking full advantage of Chelsea’s weaknesses and it was overall a very evenly matched and not particularly exciting game in line with anything else we have seen when variations of 4-5-1 have clashed in the past decade. Obviously this description doesn’t do the game proper justice though – when that happens it’s usually a draw or the team with the superior quality, which should be Chelsea in this case, win. That obviously didn’t happen.
Most of Chelsea’s problems aren’t new, they are simply a lot more obvious now. The weaknesses were there when they were running away with the league, but Mourinho simply looked to grind out wins when people caught on to them in the second half of the season rather than actually correct them. Now that those issues weren’t sorted over the summer, everyone is aware of the weak spots to target and the resulting crisis in confidence has seen an incredible drop in form for most of Chelsea’s top players.
The first domino to topple was Cesc Fabregas – along with Costa, he was the stand out performer at the start of last season, however it quickly became clear he didn’t have the defensive awareness to play in a holding two. Nemanja Matic’s workrate doubled, having to cover Fabregas further now opponents realised how easy it was to drag him out of position and make runs behind. Previously looking imperious, weaknesses in Matic’s own defensive game fell into the spotlight now he was under greater pressure, such as his tendency to stand square on to an attacker and his over-eagerness to step out. The result is that neither do their intended jobs anymore: Fabregas seems too risk-averse to create and Matic is too quick to panic.
The Chelsea’s attackers tendency to drift infield in support of Eden Hazard already put Ivanovic under added strain, but the poor form of the double pivot means that he and the rest of the defence have no real cover. Another year older, the lack of protection has all but killed off John Terry’s career – his nous doesn’t matter when he’s having to cover an area his body simply can’t get around in time.
While their greater quality should be putting them ahead against the likes of Porto, everyone’s poor form has combined to do the opposite. Mourinho’s preference for defensive players means his midfield is rarely exciting, but they were excruciatingly slow at moving the ball here. Often Porto weren’t even attempting to cut off passing options and yet the ball still went backwards. There was one point where Fabregas dropped deeper to pick up the ball off the defenders with Mikel moving forward for what should have been a simple one touch pass, yet, rather than play what was an easy forward ball, it went back to Asmir Begovic, despite Fabregas holding onto the ball for several seconds and that pass still being on.
Diego Costa did an admirable job trying to hold the ball up but was fighting a losing battle. Porto kept tight enough so that even if he did manage to bring the ball down, he had to turn or lay it off immediately or it would be snatched off his toes. By contrast, Aboubakar was frequently able to hold off a Chelsea defender and bring others into play from direct balls due to Mikel stepping forward higher into midfield and leaving a gap between the lines. He wasn’t doing a better job than Costa but it was much more effective due to how the two teams were playing.
Chelsea were so slow on the ball and reluctant to get men forward that they never really threatened, while they never really offered each other cover and are so out-of-form that any of them could be beaten individually. Porto didn’t appear to alter their strategy to take advantage of Chelsea’s weaknesses, it was just one of Brahimi’s tricky dribbles up against the spectacularly off-colour Ivanovic that won Porto the match.
It’s difficult to see how exactly Mourinho turns this around. Money will no doubt be thrown at it in January, but a combination of factors means half the squad are in freefall. Most of the players are now so low that they can’t cover for their teammate’s inadequacies – even if he manages to fix the initial issues, the crisis of confidence that has good players playing badly won’t necessarily just go away.