Chris Hatherall: Chelsea recovery ain’t going to be pretty

The days when José Mourinho was under pressure from above to play attractive, attacking football are long gone; so his pragmatic and defensive approach which reaped dividends here at Tottenham could prove bad news for John Terry and Diego Costa as Chelsea bid to save their season and close the gap from 14th to 4th.
Chris Hatherall: Chelsea recovery ain’t going to be pretty

Mourinho finally found a defensive formation and philosophy to stop the rot with a goalless draw at White Hart Lane — a stadium where his team lost 5-3 last season — and the fact that he did it without injured Terry and without sulking striker Costa, who was controversially left on the bench, is hugely significant.

In Terry’s absence, Chelsea’s defence — which had conceded 23 goals in 13 league games — looked far more solid and mobile, restricting a rapidly-improving Tottenham side to only a handful of chances.

They were helped, too, by a new ‘false nine’ formation in which Eden Hazard was chosen ahead of Costa, much to the Spanish national’s obvious frustration. So, having scored only four goals this season it leaves the once-feared striker with plenty to think about as Chelsea now prepare for a match against Bournemouth at Stamford Bridge next weekend.

Mourinho was quick to insist there was no issue between himself and his number 19. But television pictures which showed the player angrily tossing his training top away as he returned to sit on the bench, the item landing perilously close to the Chelsea manager, hinted at deeper tension and gave an opportunity for pundits to strike.

“I don’t know what his problem is,” said former Manchester United midfielder Paul Scholes. “It’s not as if he’s scoring goals and playing well. It’s no surprise he’s been left out of the team. I don’t think his form warranted him playing. He’s just not been good enough. I think it’s pretty obvious he’s had a big falling out.”

Not many people fall out with Mourinho and survive it, of course, and his emphasis on creating a team performance at White Hart Lane was rewarded with a point that may not look significant in terms of the table — Chelsea remain only five points above the relegation zone and more than twice that adrift of the Champions League places — but nevertheless provides a defensive building block for the future.

“The team defended like a team, with 11 players,” said Mourinho. “I think we have the team back.”

If Mourinho has his team back, what are the chances of him changing it to accommodate players currently on the sidelines? Especially as several of his key characters are starting to look back to normal in the last few matches.

Branislav Ivanovic, who had such a miserable start to the campaign for instance, was faultless and defensively-focused at right-back against Spurs while Gary Cahill and Kurt Zouma’s partnership in the middle is improving and Nemanja Matic is rediscovering his form of last season, providing strong cover in front of them.

“It was difficult for us to find solutions from the back,” admitted Tottenham’s Jan Vertonghen.

“Chelsea played very organised. They protected the midfielders and strikers well today. Normally we have more options but not this time. Both teams wanted to play compact and it was difficult.”

That will be music to Mourinho’s ears because while people have criticised his team’s lack of goals this season — Hazard, Fabregas and Costa have all struggled — the real malaise has been at the back where Chelsea have conceded almost two goals a game, an incredible difference to last season when they let in only 32 in 38 matches on their way to the title.

That problem has been particularly obvious away from home where Chelsea have picked up only five points so far this campaign — including this one — a record which is almost as bad as that of relegation-haunted Aston Villa.

No wonder Hazard, who came closest to winning the match with an excellent effort superbly saved by Hugo Lloris, was happy to leave with a draw. “It’s always difficult to play here,” he said. “Last season we lost 5-3. A draw I think is a good result. We have to take it game by game now. We play at home next week, so we have to win. We want to finish in the top four. It’s difficult but we can do it.”

Next up for Chelsea is Bournemouth at Stamford Bridge — who could possibly have predicted that fixture would arrive in December with the two teams separated by only a few places and five points? But the run-up to Christmas provides further opportunities for a more extended recovery with home fixtures against Sunderland and Watford.

However, there are also trips to Leicester and Old Trafford, where a goalless draw against Louis van Gaal looks almost odds-on given the current outlook of both teams. So don’t expect an expansive attitude from Mourinho any time soon. The recovery has started but it isn’t going to be pretty. And for Terry and Costa, it could prove very difficult to watch.

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