So much of being a coach is managing expectations. The best ones consistently set goals that are a finger length or two higher than what can be realistically reached. That demands commitment to the cause. It reminds players that no matter what they’ve achieved so far, there’s always another level the coach expects them to strive for.
It’s telling, then, when someone like José Mourinho—who would normally look at the moon and figure it within his grasp—is forced to lower his sights publicly after the drag of reality has continued to pull Chelsea downward.
Chelsea lost this weekend for the eighth time, again at home, and again against plainly inferior competition—this time, Premier League debutantes Bournemouth. Table-wise, this was no great upset. Two bottom-of-the-table squads met and one narrowly eked out a victory. In terms of prestige, money, natural talent, and preseason expectations, though, Chelsea and Bournemouth are light years apart. It’s not every year when a team in the relegation zone beats one just a couple spots ahead of them and it’s rightfully described as one of the biggest wins in the victorious club’s entire history.
The Bournemouth game was supposed to be yet another positive step along Chelsea’s slow trudge out of the quicksand that has been this disaster of a season. Chelsea had been on a three-match unbeaten streak—it’s wild when you think about how simply not losing in three consecutive matches was considered a purple patch for a team that, at the start of last season, some thought might go undefeated for the whole campaign—which included an uncharacteristically potent 4-0 victory in the Champions League and a creditable goalless draw away to Tottenham. The path onto firm ground was clear: a win over lowly Bournemouth, another a few days later against Porto to stamp their pass into the next round of the Champions League, and a showdown with a table-topping Leicester team Chelsea should still theoretically beat, and the Blues would finally escape the muck of the season’s start and spark their assault on top four.
Instead, the lead up to the Bournemouth game proved to be yet another false dawn. Willian is still Willian, the only consistently impressive performer all year, and Eden Hazard is at least looking a little more like the guy who ran circles around the league last season, and the defense no longer looks comically inept, but that’s about it. The attack is still completely broken, the midfield disjointed and incapable of either helping facilitate the attack or defense, and unless you saw the names on their backs, you wouldn’t know that many of the players on the pitch are considered among the best in the world. Rather than springing forward, the Bournemouth game brought them back to the uncertainty of a couple weeks ago.
And so Mourinho had to admit that his already-lowered expectation of getting Chelsea into the top four this season is becoming more and more unrealistic. From the Daily Mail:
Mourinho was bullish following his side’s latest setback, claiming he will work tirelessly to arrest the slump - starting with the Champions League tie against Porto on Wednesday - but he conceded that aspirations of a top four finish may need to be reassessed.
‘Our objective is to fight for top four, but maybe now we have to think of finishing top six,’ continued Mourinho, who was critical of his side’s lack of aggression in the first half. ‘I was concerned before this game as I was not happy with the position, and so you can imagine now (how I feel) with this defeat at home.
‘Chelsea obviously won’t be fighting for relegation – that’s not the point. The problem is our objective is to finish top four. Before today it was OK to feel that with our quality we can win games in a row to push us up to that position before the end of December.’
The Bournemouth result really might’ve been the one to push a top four finish from a legitimate though difficult goal to an unrealistic pipe dream. Take soccer analytics writer Michael Caley’s projections:
As his full projections show, Caley’s model puts Chelsea’s odds at zero percent for the title, five percent for the top four, and 17 percent for the top six.
This makes intuitive sense. Mourinho’s men currently have 15 points through 15 games. Seeing as the season is shaping up to be an Arsenal-Man City title race, with Man Utd pretty safely assured of one of the two remaining UCL berths, and Leicester eventually falling back to Earth, Chelsea’s chief rivals for the last spot in the top four are Tottenham, at 26 points, and Liverpool, at 23. This would mean Chelsea would have to out-play Spurs by 11 points in the little over half of the season that remains.
For context, a much superior Blues team outpaced an inferior Spurs side by 23 points all of last season. That means Chelsea would have to recapture something approximating their form from last year in a hurry, and count on Tottenham—who already have arguably underachieved a little points-wise—to stumble, while also hoping Liverpool don’t make a push once Jürgen Klopp gets them playing how he wants.
Thinking about it another way, finishing fourth usually takes about 70 points, or an average of two points per game. If Chelsea start playing like a top four team from here on out—a level of performance and consistency they still haven’t shown even in glimpses this year—and get two points from every game, they’ll finish at 61 points. Basically, Chelsea need to go on a run you’d expect from a title challenger for any real hope, and it needs to start immediately. Mourinho knows this, and it’s why he’s now setting sixth place as a more realistic target, as much as it must pain him, the players, and, maybe most importantly, Chelsea’s owner to admit.
Despite all this, Chelsea do appear to be improving, if only at a rate much too slow to salvage anything resembling a truly successful season for a club of this stature. At this point it might be best to forget any talk of final league standings and European qualification and summer transfer window splashes. The only way any of that will matter, and the only way Mourinho will even still be at the club to redeem himself next season or even by the end of this one, is if the team keeps getting better day by day, week by week. When the future is this bleak, all you can do is try to change the present so that tomorrow looks just a little brighter.
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