The arrival of Pedro Rodriguez has given the Premier League champions another elite match-winner but the failure to significantly bolster an ailing defence may prove costly.
There can be little doubt that Chelsea boast a stronger squad now than the one that claimed the Premier League title last season – but on the evidence of the first four matches of this campaign, there is plenty of cause to suspect that Jose Mourinho’s summer reinforcements will not be enough to repeat the feat.
How do you improve a team of champions? That was the question posed to Mourinho and Chelsea’s de facto chief executive Marina Granovskaia as the Blues claimed their first league title in five years back in May. In the frustrating days and weeks that followed, answers were not readily forthcoming.
Juventus’ determination to keep Paul Pogba for at least one more season and Gareth Bale’s reluctance to give up on his Real Madrid dream ensured a market completely shorn of superstars. In their absence, Chelsea were forced to set their sights on lesser but more attainable targets.
Priced out of a serious approach for Raheem Sterling, Chelsea reminded the football world of their formidable recruiting chops by stealing Pedro Rodriguez from the clutches of Manchester United as soon as it became clear the disillusioned Spaniard had finally resolved to leave Barcelona.
The move upgraded Chelsea’s goal threat from the right flank at a stroke – as well as paving the way for Juan Cuadrado to complete a chastening return to Serie A – but by then it was August 20 and Mourinho, having opted to begin pre-season later than his rivals in a bid to give his players an overdue rest, was already fighting an uphill battle for Premier League points with an undercooked squad.
As the final days of the window approached, Chelsea’s startling record of nine goals conceded in four matches transformed the perception of summer-long target John Stones from statement purchase into a pressing need. On this front Mourinho and Granovskaia failed, but can have no regrets; every avenue was explored in pursuit of the 21-year-old, only for the unwavering determination of Everton and boss Roberto Martinez to win the day.
Papy Djilobodji’s arrival in the final hours of the window, however, left a rather different taste. Signing a 27-year-old rejected by Aston Villa and Crystal Palace amid such a poor start is not a good look for Mourinho, raising as it does unwanted echoes of the final season of his first spell at Stamford Bridge, when free agents Steve Sidwell and Tal Ben Haim were brought in to bolster a squad with title aspirations. Three months later, the manager was gone.
A second parting of coach and club so soon remains highly unlikely, due in no small part to Chelsea’s most significant bit of business this summer: Mourinho’s new four-year contract, finally signed at the beginning of August.
There are other positives. A superb goal against Crystal Palace suggests that Radamel Falcao, viewed by many as a huge risk after his nightmare season at Manchester United, might actually prove a useful alternative or partner for Diego Costa during his season-long loan from Monaco.
Asmir Begovic has already mitigated against Petr Cech’s dangerous defection to Arsenal by proving himself a capable deputy to Thibaut Courtois on the pitch, while Brazilian youngster Kenedy should bring more pace, enthusiasm and skill to Mourinho’s attacking options.
In defence, Baba Rahman is a more dynamic weapon surging forward from left-back than Cesar Azpilicueta or the departed Filipe Luis. How quickly he settles in England will go a long way to determining how patient Mourinho is with Branislav Ivanovic’s disastrously hapless start to the season.
Chelsea’s sharpness in all areas should return before too long, but there are justifiable fears that recent vulnerabilities exhibited by Ivanovic and club captain John Terry may be symptoms of a terminal decline. If they are, it would be no surprise to see Everton hounded for Stones again in January.
Of more urgent concern to Mourinho is the idea that his Premier League title defence may be in tatters by then. Manchester City have rediscovered their hunger, spent big, bought well and hit the ground at full pelt this season, just as Chelsea did last term.
Eight points is an intimidating early-season gap and any further mistakes could quickly see it become insurmountable. Mourinho’s men have the quality to fight back but their margin for error is gone and, for the first time, Chelsea will have to win the title without being the Premier League’s biggest spenders or smartest recruiters.