Last season, Chelsea won the Premier League. They did so fair, they did so square, they did so comprehensively and in a manner nobody could possibly take any issue with. Except they did so by cheating.
Well, sort of.
It is a commonplace that modern football is, essentially, a squad game. That leagues are won not by eleven players but by upwards of twenty, shuffled and rotated and deployed according to form, fitness, and whether or not the opposition have a particular weakness. Latter-period Alex Ferguson once went 165 games without picking the same starting eleven, and it seems odd to remember that Claudio Ranieri and Rafael Benitez were once mocked for their beliefs in rotation. (Well, it seems odd until you remember that they were actually being mocked for being overtly and unapologetically foreign. Love you, British press!)
Last time around, though, Jose Mourinho basically didn't bother with a squad. Didn't have to bother. Chelsea used 22 players in the league last season, but of those 22, ten made fewer than ten starts in the league, and seven of those made five or fewer. Three players — Branislav Ivanovic, John Terry and Eden Hazard — started every single league game, and Chelsea finished at the bottom of the physioroom.com injury league table.
(For comparison, Manchester City used 24 players, none of whom started every game and 19 of whom started ten or more. As for the rest of the top four, both Arsenal and Manchester United had huge problems with injuries through the season: Arsene Wenger gave league starts to 29 players, 17 of whom started ten or more, and Louis van Gaal called on a remarkable 34 players, though only 16 started ten or more. Neither side had any ever-presents in the league.)
Essentially, Chelsea's 2014-15 league title was the modern equivalent of Aston Villa's triumph in 1980-81, when they picked just 14 players over 42 games. Mind you, back then, the substitute's bench was a single chair. Simpler times.
Okay, so not needing a massive squad wasn't actually cheating. It was, however, several other things. Certainly lucky. Definitely a remarkable achievement from the medical staff: apart from Diego Costa's mysterious hamstrings, barely any Chelsea player missed any significant chunk of the season, and it's a good job the doctors and physios responsible have all been kept happy. But also, perhaps, this consistency was part of the reason that Chelsea were derided at times last season for being a little bit boring. Stylistically this wasn't always a fair criticism: yes, they were solid, and yes, they were well organised, but their football was sometimes excellent and generally impressive.
What they were, though, was predictable, both in style and personnel. As a Chelsea game loomed on the horizon you already knew how it was going to go. You'd have Thibaut Courtois behind John Terry, Gary Cahill, Cesar Azpilicueta and Branislav Ivanovic, and they'd be shielded by Nemanja Matic. He'd be accompanied by Cesc Fabregas, who would be passing to Eden Hazard, Willian and Oscar, and they — hamstrings allowing — would be passing to or running beyond Diego Costa. And he would score. Those players, playing that way, would probably win.
Not this season. On Wednesday night against Maccabi Tel Aviv, Jose Mourinho shuffled his squad not because it was a Champions League group stage game against relatively soft opposition, but because his first team have been playing like malcoordinated buffoons. Three promising young players started, while half of the spine of last season's side were kept back on the bench. And injuries — so miraculously avoided last season — have started to creep in, too: Pedro and Willian will miss Saturday's game against Arsenal, while Courtois is out for several months.
Those injuries are unfortunate for the players involved and, presumably, vastly irritating for Chelsea fans. So too the newfound ineptitude of those who aren't hurt, though that is also highly amusing for the rest of us. But more than that, it's interesting. All of a sudden, the most settled lineup in the league is falling apart. All of a sudden, for any given game, Chelsea might have to do something unexpected.
Chaos is interesting. Chaos is fun. Not that you'd know it from the state of Jose Mourinho, who is currently in the midst of the kind of funk that would make a hormone-drunk adolescent think "steady on, mate, the world's not that bad." The only question left hanging over Mourinho as a manager is whether he can break down and rebuild a successful team, and it appears to irritate him. At least if we can draw any conclusions from his recent response to a journalist who tried to broach the subject in a recent press conference:
So click Google, instead of making stupid questions, click Google and try to find ... No, I know the point, the point is that the question is stupid.
But once he cheers up a bit and tidies his room, he might remember that he's not always entirely bad at improvising solutions from the footballers available. This is, after all, the manager who, in 2013-14, took his team to play a rampant Liverpool side at a bouncing Anfield, had to pick Tomáš Kalas at centrehalf and Demba Ba up front, and came away with a clean sheet and an amusing win tucked in his back pocket. This is the manager who won a Champions League with Samuel Eto'o on one wing and Goran Pandev on the other.
It's a chance for some of the players, too. One person's hideous loss of form is another's opportunity, and perhaps, for the next few months, being a Chelsea reserve might be something more than just the highest-paying non-job in football -- that doesn't involve FIFA, anyway. Kurt Zouma, Reuben Loftus-Cheek, Kenedy, Baba Rahman: there are spaces opening up in the team that simply didn't exist 12 months ago. Even Asmir Begovic gets a couple of months to demonstrate that he can be more than just a high-class back up (before Courtois returns and he reverts to being a high-class back up).
In short, Chelsea might not be as good this season, and they might have already done awful things to their prospects of defending the title. But the rest of us get to watch a powerful club beset by unfortunate circumstance, which is always fun. We get to watch a few young players try to prove themselves, which is generally heartwarming. And we get to watch Mourinho try to create a second excellent team to follow a first one, which would be more or less unprecedented. Whether it all goes massively wrong or totally right, it's definitely going to be good to watch. Except, perhaps, for John Terry. He might finally be done.