Something still lacking as Chelsea face toughest test yet against PSG
It’s been the bind that has so far created the only real doubt about Chelsea’s otherwise fine season, as well as Wednesday’s Champions League second leg with Paris Saint-Germain. Because, as high-quality as Jose Mourinho’s team is, as imposing as they should be for the French at Stamford Bridge, and as promising as everything looks, Cesc Fàbregas couldn’t deny it still isn’t all there. There's still something a little lacking.
“This is the thing,” the midfielder admitted on the eve of the second leg against PSG. “If I have to say what we’re missing a bit this season, it’s that moment when, if we can kill, we have to kill. There have been moments when we’ve not done that.”
Those moments have mostly arrived in their biggest games so far, which have seen something of a slightly troubling trend. It is a trend all the more conspicuous because it is so out of synch with Mourinho’s career, with the manner he gets his teams to so competitively turn the screw and secure big results. That has not been the case in these matches. In five separate fixtures - four of them coming away from home, the other at home to the champions - Chelsea have scored first only to later concede and then fail to complete a win.
Those games were all 1-1 draws: the two against Manchester City, the November trip to Manchester United, the first leg of the League Cup against a reformed Liverpool - a side so much different to the one that lost 2-1 to Chelsea in the league - and, most relevantly now, the first leg of the Champions League last-16 tie with Paris Saint-Germain.
Of course, there is the fact that, in each of these matches, Chelsea didn’t absolutely have to win them. A 1-1 draw was enough in all of them to keep the side’s strong position in the league, or give them an advantage for the second legs - at home - in the cup competitions. That can mean they just decide to hold.
At the same time, it’s difficult not to think it ties into the one remaining feat to be achieved in the side’s convincing season, and their one tactical issue. Chelsea have yet to offer a truly stand-out crushing performance in a big game, and it is possibly because Mourinho doesn’t yet have full faith in the Nemanja Matic-Fàbregas axis to apply themselves like that in big games.
They leave too much space behind, so he seeks to close it, and reverts to base principles. Rather than kill off the opposition, Mourinho seeks to kill the game, usually by suffocation. That can be clearly seen when comparing the bare stats of those games to the averages from the rest of the season.
Chelsea first of all cede possession, with that dropping from an average of 55.8% to 43.2%, and sit back so much deeper. They spend just 22.8% of the game in the opposition third compared to the usual of 31%, and a greater proportion of games closer to their own box at 30.2%.
They then shoot far less, with their efforts dropping from 15.6 per game to 4.4. They obviously also make far more tackles, at 23.4 a game, and commit a higher number of fouls at 14.6.
The big question then is how they will approach this Paris Saint-Germain second leg, given the thin nature of their away-goal advantage and how precarious just trying to protect it could be, as in those big games so far. “We try to win,” Mourinho insisted on the eve of the game. “The result has a complete balance, but we are trying to win.” It is also possible that recent victories may aid that.
For one, Fàbregas admitted that he has been fine-tuning the defensive side of his game. “I have had to improve defensively,” he explained. “I can still improve more, I know that. With time and with more games to understand my teammates, I'm sure it will get better from both parts. But for me the most important thing is the team feels comfortable playing in that position. I play with confidence in that position. It's about the balance of the team.”
Recent results may have added to that confidence. Fàbregas admitted that they had suffered “a little bit of a dip of form, but we’ve raised our game in the last few matches”.
That was never more evident than in probably the biggest game of their season so far, the 2-0 League Cup final win over Tottenham Hotspur. Plus, despite the absence of Nemanja Matic in that match, they did strike a fine balance between tight defence and tenacious attack. We may see the same against PSG, as Fàbregas himself implored.
“Hopefully we can see the best Chelsea in the next match.” It may be needed to move the season on to the next step.