As the Premier League champions, Chelsea’s dire form this season has been a major surprise, and the longer it continues, the more it confounds considered opinion.
Surely, goes the thinking in many quarters, it is only a matter of time until the Blues go on a winning run of the kind football fans have been conditioned to expect from the club – and manager Jose Mourinho – over the past decade.
Indeed, there had been signs that Chelsea were finally turning what has been a long, debilitating corner.
The victory over Norwich City, despite the narrow 1-0 scoreline, appeared to have shaken a few players into life – particularly Eden Hazard – and a 4-0 Champions League thrashing of Maccabi Tel Aviv, along with a 0-0 draw away at tough-to-beat Tottenham Hotspur, looked to have eased the pressure on Mourinho.
But the 1-0 defeat to newly-promoted AFC Bournemouth has brought the champions crashing back down to earth.
While the team’s defending had shown considerable improvement – certainly the goalless draw at White Hart Lane impressed observers – it’s Chelsea’s attack that remains the most worrying aspect of the club’s play.
Scoring against Norwich City and Maccabi Tel Aviv should be par for the course for Chelsea; not so long ago, the Carlo Ancelotti-led Blues would have cut such opposition to shreds.
Meanwhile, failing to score against the Cherries at home was simply inexcusable.
Remarkably, this season Chelsea haven’t even reached double figures in goals scored from open play, netting just seven, with six also – courtesy of Willian’s growing reputation as a dead-ball specialist – coming from set pieces.
Last term for Mourinho it was easy deciding his attack; Costa and Fabregas’ on-field relationship was proving formidable, while Hazard provided an unpredictable route to goal that opposition defenders found difficult to halt.
But what was their deadliest weapon only months ago, has now become their weakest – Chelsea’s creative brain has almost perished.
And there’s one ever so important aspect that may be key to their struggle.
The Portuguese manager has remained loyal to the successful 4-2-3-1 of their title-winning campaign – a formation that saw the partnership of Nemanja Matic and Fabregas blossom in the centre of the park – yet this could now be the very root of the current problems.
The poor performances of the midfield pair has been pivotal; they have left an ageing defence exposed, and it’s their inability to protect the back four, combined with their lack of ideas going forward, that has thwarted the Blues’ attack.
Mourinho’s style is not centred upon masterminding a team irresistible in its play, rather, it’s to construct an unbeatable side.
His persistence with 4-2-3-1, however, may be the very reason this season’s Chelsea are being defeated so often, with his two key players unreliable.
The main problem with their current system is that it allows too many to hide when the going gets tough.
Could Mourinho be doing more to help his side, therefore?
With wingers Willian, Pedro and Hazard, a diamond formation – which reaped unprecedented success with midfield generals such as Frank Lampard, Michael Essien and Michael Ballack in previous seasons – may not be currently suited to the Blues.
But the flexibility of a 4-3-3 structure might.
With Chelsea’s current form questionable, setting up with a 4-3-3 system would allow the Blues to start on the offensive, but offer the option of switching to a 4-5-1 should the defence – which it has done so often this season – require extra support.
On paper, this could – or rather should – be Chelsea’s strongest XI in such a formation.
Football, though, isn’t played on paper.
And, alternatively, one player who arguably hasn’t been given a fair chance to impress this season during the club’s slump is Loic Remy.
The Frenchman has found life at Stamford Bridge tough going, with Mourinho seemingly unconvinced that he possesses the quality to lead the line for a side that should be competing for every piece of silverware available.
What Remy does, however, that Costa certainly hasn’t of late, is express a desire to run in behind the opponent’s defenders. He has, admittedly, gained a slight reputation for mistiming his runs and inexplicably being caught offside; but the former Queens Park Rangers and Newcastle United man is the kind of out-and-out frontman that Chelsea have missed this season.
Remy’s desire, in contrast to Costa, isn’t to drop deep and get on the ball but, simply, to get into goalscoring positions.
He might not be a 15-plus goals a season man for Chelsea but, at present, neither does Costa look to be.
One way or another, despite the small rise of optimism in southwest London after their convincing defensive display at White Hart Lane, the predictabilty of Chelsea’s forward play must change; soon no side will fear Mourinho’s men.
Should Mourinho stick with his current formation and personnel or alter the shape to help the club out of their sticky situation over the festive period? Let talkSPORT know by leaving a comment below.