Much has been made throughout the season of the array of attacking talent Chelsea have in midfield and whether the number is excessive, but as they sit at top of the league could Chelsea’s use of their large squad be the difference in the title race?
After the first matches of an important March have been played, Chelsea opened up a 4 points gap at the top of the league – although Manchester City have 2 games in hand which will see them take first if 6 points are obtained – without blasting sides for 4 or 5 goals on a regular accordance like others. Instead, the focus has been on the quality of depth throughout the side that no other team in the Premier League possesses.
When Chelsea have seen one of their players drop their performance, there has always been another fresher option to take their place, most recently seen against Fulham at the weekend as Schürrle returned to the starting XI with a 16 minute hat-trick. Mourinho has used this to full effect with his new signings this season who could have struggled with the physical demands of the Premier League – Matic is an obvious exception given his previous history in England and his dominating size.
Throughout most teams players who are new to the Premier League often struggle over the winter months as their bodies fail to cope with the volume of matches played without a break. The two standout players this applies to at Chelsea have been Willian and Schürrle with both experiencing periods this season where their game time has been minimal.
Willian was eased into the side to help him adapt to English football with the Brazilian midfielder not starting a run of games until 9th November – 2 and a bit months after signing for Chelsea. Willian’s introduction into the side came at the time when Mata was failing to hit the level Mourinho expected from his attacking trio and Chelsea dropped points to West Brom and Newcastle. Since then, every league game Willian has featured in Chelsea have failed to lose in 14 matches with 10 of these resulting in victories. The defensive contribution and work rate Willian gave Chelsea in place of Mata – 145 ground duels and 29 successful tackles – gave more freedom to Eden Hazard and seen the Belgian international endure his best form in a Chelsea shirt.
Andre Schürrle however featured more predominately at the beginning of his Chelsea career than Willian, but the German international has only started 3 league matches in just over 4 months playing 309 minutes out of 1260. Similar to Sanogo’s absence from the Arsenal team, Schürrle has been on a fitness programme to help develop him as a player.
“We talked a lot, of course, and he [Mourinho] told me I needed to change my game and my body, and that’s what I’ve done over the last two months. I’ve really worked very hard to be aggressive, to be in a good shape with my body. Now I’m ready to play more often. I did a lot in the gym but I wanted to do this, I needed to do this. I wanted to change and I think I have.” - Schürrle after scoring a hat-trick against Fulham on Saturday.
Two of the Premier League’s best players of past years have been Ronaldo and Bale; both wingers have worked hard in the gym to become quicker and stronger with the results evident to see. Chelsea will hope Schürrle will have a similar development in the long-term, but in the short term his rested legs and focus on his physicality could benefit the London club’s chase for trophies both domestically and in Europe. After a poor first half performance by Chelsea on Saturday that had seen them look tired and lethargic, Schürrle was one of the players to step up in the second half to fire the Blues to victory – 5 goals in 3 starts to his name – and the hope will be his fitness programme will provide further match-winning performances.
With January signing Mohamed Salah yet to have his chance to impress in the league – the Egyptian winger has only played 13 minutes – Mourinho has another option to choose from to help Chelsea continue their race for the Premier League. What was seen as a weakness to fit keep every player happy without effecting results at the start of the campaign could end up being the extra edge needed to win the title.