Throughout the 2013-2014 Premier League season Jose Mourinho expressed to the media that his Chelsea side were not yet ready to compete for the Premier League title, that they shouldn't be viewed as contenders until next season. This was a classic Mourinho example of attempting to deflect pressure from his side but one he won't be able to cling to this time around. Next season has arrived and anything less than a league title for Chelsea will be perceived as a disappointment.
Despite their lack of a quality striker and talented but relatively young and inexperienced group of attacking midfielders- factors Mourinho rarely missed an opportunity to point out throughout 2013-14- Chelsea's third place finish was largely disappointing. Just one loss against top 6 opposition and 16 out of a possible 18 points against Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City should have been enough to see the Blues crowned champions. An inability to switch from a reactive, counterattacking style to a more proactive one against weaker opposition ultimately cost Mourinho a third Premier League title.
Those troubles against weaker opposition were largely due to the lack of an in form #9 and a creative presence in the middle of midfield, areas Mourinho has addressed this summer with the signings of Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas. Costa scored 36 goals in all competitions on his way to a La Liga title and Champions League runner up finish with Atletico Madrid last season. Chelsea's three strikers Samuel Eto'o, Fernando Torres and Demba scored a combined 31 goals.
Last season was the first in which Costa scored more than 10 league goals and he failed to impress in Spain's difficult World Cup campaign, leaving some to question whether he may yet prove to be a one season wonder. Early signs are good for Chelsea however- he's scored 4 goals and provided 2 assists in 5 preseason appearances.
With Ba and Eto'o shipped out over the summer, Mourinho has brought Didier Drogba back to the club where he's cemented his status as a legend. Drogba and Torres will provide some depth at center forward but it's difficult to see Chelsea winning the title if Costa misses an extended period of time with injury.
The creativity Fabregas brings to midfield should be a huge lift for Chelsea as well. Following Juan Mata's January sale to Manchester United Chelsea lacked a player in the middle of the pitch that could unlock crowded defenses with a clever pass. As precocious a talent as Chelsea's current center attacking midfielder Oscar is, his biggest attributes are his tireless off the ball running and fantastic ability to press the opposition high up the pitch. However, he does not yet have the vision to pick apart teams with his final third passing. He provided just 2 assists in 33 league appearances. Fabregas provided 13 at Barcelona, second only to Angel Di Maria in La Liga.
Crucially, Fabregas can also play in a slightly deeper role, replacing Ramires alongside Nemanja Matic in Chelsea's 4-2-3-1 formation which would allow 3 of Oscar, Eden Hazard, Andre Schurrle, Willian and Mohamed Salah to take up the attacking midfield positions behind Diego Costa. Ramires will still get opportunities in midfield. His defensive ability and prodigious midfield running make him an incredibly effective player when Chelsea play on the counter. But, when he plays alongside Matic against teams that sit deep, Chelsea tend to move the ball too slowly and too horizontally. Matic is a classic defensive holding midfielder, Ramires is a shuttler. Neither player is a deep lying creator. Teams will drop into a compact defensive shape, deny passing lanes into Chelsea's talented attacking midfielders and allow Matic and Ramires time on the ball knowing they'll likely play horizontal passes out to the fullbacks. Fabregas brings greater creativity and vision to that deeper lying midfield position. If the defense drops off and gives him time on the ball he can dictate the rhythm of Chelsea's play and pick out dangerous forward passes.
At the back, the purchase of Atletico Madrid left back Filipe Luis will add depth to a Chelsea defense that conceded 10 fewer goals than any other side last season. His purchase should allow Cesar Azpilicueta to switch back to his favored right back position although I'd expect Mourinho to start the season off with the same back four he used last term- Branislav Ivanovic at right back, John Terry and Gary Cahill partnering at centerback and Azpilicueta at left back. The addition of Filipe Luis means that Ivanovic can be used as an experienced center back off the bench if Cahill or Terry pick up an injury- important given David Luiz's summer move to PSG.
Mourinho will be left with a difficult decision over who to start in goal, albeit one he'll be happy to be faced with. Thibaut Courtois was Europe's outstanding keeper at Atletico last season but Mourinho has always put faith in experienced players so I wouldn't be terribly shocked if he starts the season with Cech. I do think it's important Courtois becomes the #1 at some point this season though- taking the world's top young keeper away from a situation he was enjoying in Madrid to sit on the bench would not bode well for Mourinho's relationship with Courtois in the future.
Chelsea's wealth of young attacking midfielders should continue to progress in their second year under Mourinho. Hazard dazzled at times last season but Mourinho will look for more consistency and a better defensive work rate this time around. Andre Schurrle is coming off a fantastic World Cup in which he scored 3 goals and provided the winning assist to Mario Goetze in the final, all coming off the bench. Willian combines the tactical discipline Mourinho demands with genuine ability on the ball. Oscar struggled in the second half of last season, a problem blamed largely on fatigue after playing the Olympics and Cofederations Cup for Brazil in consecutive summers. Coming off another busy summer at the World Cup he'll be playing his third straight year without a meaningful break. Mourinho will need to use him wisely and at times sparingly.
With the talent at Mourinho's disposal anything less than a league title will be considered a disappointment. The Portuguese manager is generally very good at preparing his sides against other title challengers and you wouldn't expect that to change this time around. Whether he wins a third Premier League will likely depend on whether Chelsea can adopt a more proactive style of football when it's required of them. The numbers make for frustrating reading for Chelsea supporters: they finished 4 points behind Manchester City and dropped 10 out of 12 points to Aston Villa (1-0 loss), Crystal Palace (1-0 loss), Sunderland (2-1 loss, Mourinho's first home league defeat) and Norwich (0-0 draw) in the final two months of the season. If they get it right more consistently against weaker opposition they have every chance of dethroning City.