Chelsea have been awful, but they'll still win the league

Matthew Lewis

José Mourinho's Chelsea have been poor this season, suffering another shock defeat, this time to Sunderland in the League Cup last night. Yet they still look favourites for the Premier League title.

When asked why Manchester United have changed their team so often this season, David Moyes gave an answer that owed much to the work and style of his predecessor. "We've got enough players to use, and because of the amount of games, I think in past years what it's proved is that is why Manchester United have got better in the second half of the season: because they've used the players, they've tried not to burn them out in the early part. I can think of a couple of teams who have kept the same centre-half pairings all season, had no injuries; that could change at any time. The way you get extended runs is by playing well and doing your job."

The accepted knowledge goes that José Mourinho demonstrated the nonsense of such claims by showing the Premier League that points gained early in the season counted just as much as those won late on. That may be true, but the other exceptional thing about that Chelsea side was the monotonous pace they set to their league season, gently and terribly cruising through a succession of two-nil wins without a change in pace or tempo.

At the time of his arrival, United and Arsenal would decline, but they had been embroiled in very different title challenges in some of the previous years, flying hell-for-leather out of the blocks and not letting up. Only rarely, as in United's treble-winning season, did neither side suffer a loss of form and simply charge forward at the same speed. Bad patches were encountered, remarkable and heroic winning streaks against the odds were put together, and the season had twists and turns.

Mourinho changed that. Not by pacing himself in the league and accepting mediocre performances early on in the hope of title-winning streaks later in the year, but rather by his team pacing themselves in games. Once the security of a second goal had been established, there was little need to exert themselves by going out and looking for more.

Ferguson learned this and used it to his advantage in his later years, utilising it with a mediocre team rather than a great one, with United often taking their foot off the accelerator late in games. Sometimes -- notably that game against Everton -- it would be disastrous, but far more commonly it would allow them to reliably grind their way through the campaign by having a slight edge on the vast majority of the teams they encountered and keeping it well-sharpened.

The differences between the sides in Mourinho's first and second terms at Chelsea are obvious. Gary Cahill is no Ricardo Carvalho, John Obi Mikel is no Claude Makelele, and John Terry in 2013 is no John Terry in 2004. But it's also worth looking at the opposition faced in that time.

In August 2004, Chelsea faced a Manchester United side that lined up with Mikael Sylvestre, Liam Miller, Eric Djemba-Djemba, Alan Smith and Quinton Fortune in the starting eleven. The rest of the league was not all that much better. It was, perhaps, the period of the most awful mid-table sides there have ever been, and where the record for the lowest points total was broken three times in the space of a several years.

Things are very different now. Manchester United may be struggling once again, but the rest of the league is of a far superior quality than it was in those days. Winning every game 2-0 is no longer possible given the quality of the lesser sides in the league. But pacing yourself still has a lot of value. Chelsea have shown nothing like Manchester City's attacking spirit this season, and yet they sit above them in the table and look a lot less likely to get worse.

That City side are very much not in the Mourinho model either, as the number of big wins shows. Their ability to put in by far the best performances in the league on their day has led them to be touted as title favourites, but in reality, there are few cases in recent years of teams enjoying a period of form of putting five and six goals past anyone who dares turn up at their ground, and then going on to prove their dominance in trophies.

Kevin Keegan's Newcastle United in 1994/95 are perhaps the classic example, roaring into an absurd lead and scoring three or more goals eleven times before finally collapsing late into the season. Rafael Benitez's Liverpool in 2008/09 are a more recent and slightly different example as another team who showed by far the most dominant attacking displays across the course of the season but ultimately fell short. The only team that has played like that and won are Chelsea under Carlo Ancelotti, but they could afford to focus on the league after being run out of Europe.

The question is simply who can improve the most out of Chelsea and City. People have an odd conception of what constitutes form versus class: a player who had four mediocre seasons and then one good one is suddenly and unreasonably expected to perform at the higher level for the next year. Similarly, it is assumed that Manchester City's indomitable home form is the norm, rather than their meek away form. True, beating Arsenal and Manchester United is a better reflection of the squad's quality than losing to Cardiff, but putting ten past them? These kinds of performances are just as rare and unexpected as the shock defeats, and equally likely to fall away.

Whoever can reliably find a way past the good counter-attacking teams that comprise the majority of the Premier League will win the title. Arsenal are at the top of the league and there have been few hiccups in games they have been expected to win. Yet Arsenal are playing at the top of their game, and have had a kind fixture list. Their form against bigger teams suggests that they are very unlikely to survive a tremendously difficult run in February and March.

Everything currently points to Mourinho once again prevailing in the first season of his second spell at the club. Chelsea are also likely to buy in January, but it may not affect their campaign too much. The narrow defeats will undoubtedly become less common, and even last night's debacle against Sunderland now gives them more time to focus on the league. It may not be the most exciting way to win the title, but it's a lot more forgivable using it now, with a deeply flawed side, than it was when he possessed the best set of players in the country.

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