Yesterday, Chelsea started their Champions League campaign by losing at home against Swiss champions FC Basel, 2-1. And that's OK.
Basel are really good. They score all the time, and they've made somewhat of a habit out of beating top English teams over the last couple years. Many could've seen Basel nicking a point in London. A few might have even seen them winning outright.
But it's not just yesterday's result that has Chelsea's next match looking more important than a mid-September match against Fulham really should. After the return of manager José Mourinho from Real Madrid, the Blues were everyone's conservative pick to win the Premier League, but they now haven't won in four matches. By Sunday, they'll have gone an entire month without winning a single match in any competition.
Before the Basel loss, they lost away in the Premier League to a spirited Everton side, 1-0. Before the international break, Chelsea lost to Bayern Munich in penalties in this year's UEFA Super Cup, just four days after drawing Manchester United at Old Trafford.
There's no shame in any of these results on their own. They're finding it difficult, like everyone would, to win against reigning domestic champions and an overachieving Everton side. But all them together amount to one of club's worst starts since owner Roman Abramovich took over and turned Chelsea into Chelsea. Even before the Basel loss, journalists were beginning to take note, to Mourinho's disgust.
When this reporter pointed out that this is Chelsea's worst start in a decade, the Special One reamed him out. When he asked if the Blues' start was anything to be worried about, Mourinho dismissed the notion.
This is Mourinho being Mourinho. He's one of the world's top managers. He wins wherever he goes, no matter what. He's also clever and funny, and uses his wit to either endear himself to media or dickishly deflect questions he doesn't want to answer. But the questions remain. Even though it's still early in the season, Chelsea faithful are asking if Chelsea are already doomed to fall short—at least of their Premier League aspirations.
The answer to that is... complicated. Chelsea's goal is to win the Premier League. And with 34 matches to go, they're only three points off league leaders Liverpool. It'd be stupid to rule anyone out, especially a squad that's bursting with talent and has an incredible manager. But.
History tells us that maybe Mourinho should be worried. It's a long, long campaign, and every team, even the ones that end up on top, experiences miniature crises and dips in form throughout the season. Teams that win the league, though, usually don't have runs like this.
Over the past decade, Premier League champions have gone a few weeks without a win, like Manchester City did between March 24 and April 11, 2011 before regaining form late and catching Manchester United in stoppage time on the final day to win the league. There's also precedent for teams starting off slow, like Chelsea now: In the 2008-09 season, United won only once in its first seven matches across all competitions, but beat out Liverpool by four points to lift the trophy. The season before that, it took five matches for United to record their first victory, but by seasons end, United had still managed to edge out Chelsea by two points.
Even during the seasons United turned their slow starts into championship runs, though, there were caveats. In 2011, City and United finished the season level with 89 points each. Arsenal, in third, had 70. In 2009, only Liverpool and Chelsea finished anywhere close. Arsenal finished fourth with 72 points, 18 less than United. In 2008, 11 points separated United and fourth-place Liverpool. Everton finished fifth with 65 points, 22 points off United. The argument could be made that the Premier League wasn't as competitive then as it is now. There were fewer quality teams to play, so the best teams could fall behind a bit and come back.
The Premier League is even different today than it was as recently as two years ago. We've seen teams like City, Tottenham, and Arsenal, and even sides like Southampton and Swansea, improved after injections of money. After beating United a couple weeks ago and remaining unbeaten after four Premier League matches, Liverpool look like they might maybe just about possibly be back. The league's deeper now. Every point dropped matters, especially as you can expect more teams to keep pace with the league leaders further into the season.
Then there's the other question: whether their shiny, newish manager and the additions of Willian, André Schürrle, and Samuel Eto'o (among others) give Chelsea a strong enough squad to challenge for the Premier League or even Champions League.
The answer to that will be fascinating, because Mourinho himself hasn't been able to decide who his best 11 players are. He's changed lineups liberally, and so far has curiously favored attacking midfielders Willian, Oscar, and Eden Hazard over Spaniard Juan Mata, who was Chelsea's best player last season. Chelsea legends and leaders John Terry and Frank Lampard started on the bench against Basel, and Terry never saw the pitch.
You'd imagine that Mourinho is simply too great a manager for indecisiveness to hamper the squad for much longer. But when he does figure out his best squad, it'll still have holes. After failing to buy Wayne Rooney from United, Chelsea took two huge gambles at the transfer window deadline, allowing promising forward Romelu Lukaku to join Everton on loan, and bringing in Eto'o for free.
At this point, the jury's out on whether Lukaku is ready to head the line for Chelsea, or if he needs one more year running the show at a smaller club. (Mourinho thought the latter.) It's also questionable whether or not Eto'o, one of the greatest players of this generation, is anything more than a shadow of what he once was at Barcelona and when he partnered with Mourinho at Inter.
No one really knows the answer to either question yet, but Mourinho has already fielded a side at Old Trafford that didn't feature a single striker. Until the January transfer window, Mourinho will have to rely on Eto'o, who might never pan out, Fernando Torres, who's consistently inconsistent, or Demba Ba, who sucks a little bit. In Mourinho's favored 4-2-3-1, it's vital that the center forward can capitalize off of Chelsea's inherent advantage in the midfield. At Real Madrid, Mourinho had both Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuain. In his first stint at Chelsea, he had Didier Drogba. All three were beasts who could hold up play and handle scoring duties on their own, which gave Mourinho's teams license to devote more players to shoring up the defense. Mourinho's teams are famously difficult to break down, but part of the reason they are is because Mourinho's forwards are always world-class. Eto'o looks lively so far, but somewhat toothless.
So we don't know if Chelsea have anything to worry about, but the idea that they do really isn't just the invention of the famously impatient European press. It's a real question, one that will be answered in the coming games and weeks, starting against Fulham. Only once some time has passed will we know if this is just a hiccup—nothing more than early stutters of a smooth-running machine—or if last month's results are indicative of a fatally-flawed squad. And by the time we do, it may be too late.