After a year spent managing expectations, Jose Mourinho is talking big again. “My club did a fantastic job, not just because of what we bought, but because we did it in almost record time,” he enthused on Saturday, when it was officially announced that Filipe Luis would be joining Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa as marquee signings at Chelsea this season.
“We got exactly what we need and what we want. The squad is one which I like very much and I look forward to starting the season.” Mourinho finally feels as if he has a team he can mould into his own image and it is easy to see why.
In Luis and returning loanee Thibaut Courtois he has bolstered what was already the most formidable defence in England last season with two key members of the tightest backline in Spain. Cesc Fabregas remains one of the most consistently effective playmakers in the world, and Diego Costa is a powerhouse of a centre-forward who scored 35 goals last term. Mourinho can no longer dismiss Chelsea as the “little horse” in any Premier League title race. His team is a thoroughbred stallion.
Courtois is expected to begin the season as No.1 goalkeeper at Stamford Bridge – not because Petr Cech’s level has slipped, but because even at 22, the sensational Belgian is already too good to risk alienating with any more loan spells. He will need time to adjust to the Premier League and the defenders in front of him but his frame, agility and confident demeanour mark him out as a perfect fit for English football.
In Luis, Chelsea have finally acquired a natural replacement for Ashley Cole at left-back. Defensively diligent, athletic and comfortable on the ball – as well as naturally left-footed – the Brazilian should be just as reliable as Cesar Azpilicueta while carrying far more attacking threat. At right-back, this in turn will enable Mourinho to choose between the technique of Azpilicueta and the physicality of Branislav Ivanovic (among full-backs, only Bacary Sagna won more aerial duels in the Premier League last season) depending on the opponent, as well as deploying the Serb centrally with more ease if injury or suspension breaks up his first-choice pairing of Gary Cahill and John Terry.
The midfield situation is even more fluid. The expectation is that Mourinho will persist with the 4-2-3-1 he employed for the majority of last season, with Nemanja Matic breaking up play at the base and aiming to start Chelsea attacks with short, incisive passes. Fabregas might potentially partner him in this deeper position but Ramires, with his greater energy and tenacity at both ends of the pitch, is more likely to provide the “balance” the ‘Special One’ craves.
With Oscar drawing criticism from Mourinho towards the end of last season and carrying his obvious fatigue into the World Cup, it is likely that Fabregas will at least begin the new campaign in his favoured No.10 role, flanked by Eden Hazard and Willian. But regardless of the position, adding the player who got more assists (13) and created more clear-cut chances from open play (27) than anyone else in Europe’s top five leagues last season to a team which already created more chances from open play (446) than any other in the Premier League last term is a truly frightening prospect.
There is also an outside possibility that, at least in the early days, Fabregas or even Hazard could play as a false nine – particularly if Costa takes time to regain full fitness following months of injury problems – but this is unlikely. Mourinho has always preferred his teams to play to a traditional striker, and it is clear that the plan is for this mouthwateringly creative midfield to provide the ammunition for Chelsea’s new £35m man.
Costa endured a torrid time after limping into this summer’s World Cup but, based on his sensational final season for Atletico, the Brazilian-born Spaniard should prove a considerable upgrade on any of Chelsea’s underwhelming striking options last term.
Mourinho’s men finished just four points behind eventual champions Manchester City last season despite scoring 31 fewer goals. Blanks against West Ham, Aston Villa and Crystal Palace in the second half of the campaign cost Chelsea a possible eight points alone, while Samuel Eto’o, Fernando Torres and Demba Ba scored just 19 Premier League goals between them.
The purchase of Costa is Chelsea’s biggest gamble of the summer, but also the one with the most potential to turn them into champions. The 25-year-old had a significantly better shot conversion rate (28.72 per cent) in La Liga last season than Eto’o (20.45%), Ba (18.52%) or Torres (13.51%), and Chelsea averaged more shots per game (18.2) than any other team in the Premier League.
Costa alone should be enough to turn Chelsea into a devastating attacking force, but if Romelu Lukaku sticks around and Didier Drogba returns to provide some wise counsel and even occasional impetus from the bench, the array of striking options at Stamford Bridge will be a match for any other in England. Mourinho is entitled to be confident.