Finishers pivotal to success but Chelsea prove exception to enduring rule
Mourinho’s side devoid of top front men but are still on the cusp of success
Manager John Still of Luton Town during the Skrill Conference Premier match between Luton Town and Braintree Town this month. Photograph: Tim Keeton/Getty Images
When Steve Bruce restates one of his favourite phrases – “You are only as good as your strikers” – his opinion tends to provoke knowing nods. To an extent it is a statement of the obvious, but sometimes the obvious is overlooked in the search for some tactical mystery.
David Moyes probably agrees with Bruce. Robin van Persie scored 26 Premier League goals last season. This season Van Persie has 11. Brendan Rodgers may not quibble given the 49 league goals accumulated by Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge.
And for Bruce, the opinion doubles as policy. He can offer evidence from this January window. It was then Bruce signed Nikica Jelavic from Everton and Shane Long from West Bromwich Albion. At the end of January Hull City were four points above relegation. This morning Hull are six points off with a game in hand.
Jelavic has scored three goals in 12 Hull appearances, Long has three from 11. It is hardly a goal burst, but Jelavic’s have come against Sunderland and Cardiff City, Long’s against Tottenham, Sunderland and West Brom. Hull’s victories over Sunderland, Cardiff and West Brom could be the ones that keep them in the Premier League.
Statement of intent
Bruce’s attitude would be that those six goals alone should be enough to justify the €14.6
million outlay of January. Without those goals, without the impetus of signings and the sense of ambition they create within a squad, Hull City could be four, five or six points worse off. Hull could be looking at an FA Cup final against Arsenal six days after a possible relegation at home to Everton. You’re only as good as your new strikers. Bruce is right.
Then Jose Mourinho steps forward. If you are only as good as your new strikers, imagine how good Chelsea will be next season. For quite a bit of this, Mourinho has bleated about his old strikers, old in terms of their Chelsea longevity – Fernando Torres – and old in terms of age, Samuel Eto’o.
Yet here we are, past mid-April, and Chelsea are hovering with intent again. They can still win the Premier League, can still win the Champions League. And their top scorer is a wide midfielder. Eden Hazard has 14 goals. Chelsea may be the exception that proves Bruce’s rule.
Bruce knows, of course, that it is about more than just his strikers. A team is also only as good as its defence, its midfield, its squad, its manager, its bank account. At the end of that sentence, there is a club that emerges: Chelsea.
A feelgood factor has washed over Merseyside in the past six weeks, bathing Liverpool and Everton in neutral good wishes. But Chelsea are still there. The Premier League title is in their hands as much as Liverpool’s.
As much as we can be irritated, and then some, by Mourinho’s behaviour – the undisguised disdain for Manuel Pellegrini, the snubbing of Arsene Wenger – it must be accepted when push comes to shove, that he is good at push and shove.
Chelsea now enter an 11-day period that will not just help define their season, it could shake their world. It begins today when Sunderland go to Stamford Bridge. We can be fairly sure that Mourinho will not want a repeat of Sunderland’s 2-2 result at Man City on Wednesday, not least because a Chelsea victory would offer further proof, in Mourinho’s mind, of his superiority to Pellegrini.
After that Chelsea head to Madrid for Tuesday’s first leg of the Champions League semi-final against Atletico.
The two Manchester clubs and Arsenal will be watching on TV. Then it’s Anfield next Sunday followed by Atletico at home three days later.
Chelsea have displayed the power of endurance. That resilience has led to accusations of arid style, some of which come from people who watch Hazard and Oscar week in, week out. The Premier League goldfish syndrome.
Chelsea may not have the expansive game, sometimes, of Liverpool or City but nor do they often produce the kind of unsteady defending that was overlooked in assessments of Liverpool’s 3-2 win against City last Sunday. The ability to defend – even if it is not of the peak of Mourinho’s first season in London when Chelsea conceded only 15 goals – is what could yet lead Chelsea to glory, strikers or not.
But in which competition? Surely it cannot come in both. Steve Bruce might have an ally in Mourinho here. Had Chelsea the Didier Drogba of old, they could have approached today, Atletico and the potential title decider at Anfield with equal confidence. But not now. In this scenario, Chelsea are only as good as their strikers.
Chelsea will expect to defend in Madrid and hope that they have something to attack in the second leg.
But next Sunday at Anfield, Chelsea are free to play as they wish. The emphasis is not on them, which gives them added menace. As it stands Chelsea are the sub-plot, which is how Mourinho will like it – as long as it doesn’t stay that way. The emotional swell around Liverpool this week has brought a sense that this is their year. But Chelsea have shown this season that it is not just how good your strikers are.
There is something about them that suggests they may offer more evidence of that soon.
Luton Town are back in the Football League.
Luton’s fall has been as dramatic as any in recent years and they have spent five years in the Conference trying to regain the minimum requirement for a club of such history and size.
Luton won the Conference on Monday and a lot of gratitude has since passed the way of manager John Still. He gave up Dagenham in the League to go to non-League and has become popular locally for phrases such as “control the controlables”.
Control is what Luton have back. Still will be 64 next week. A lot of Luton people will still love Still then.
Making judgments based on TV highlights is, admittedly, not perfect. But watching Norwich City swarm over Fulham last Saturday, only to lose, did not give the impression Norwich accept they are down.
That idea has been around since the fixture list threw up Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal as their final four opponents. But there was an energy to Norwich’s play under Neil Adams – which might have been present had Chris Hughton remained – that made you think a draw against Liverpool would not be the surprise bookmakers say it is.