A quarter of the way into this Premier League season, Chelsea have unwillingly advanced the concept of the “bad patch”.
From their lofty perch of the last decade, they have witnessed plenty of minor wobbles and stumbles. It became more than a mere “blip” — universally understood to be an anomaly of form that last no longer than three or four games — when Crystal Palace snatched three points from Stamford Bridge at the end of August. After the blip comes the indeterminate period of the “crisis” — a term that has long lost its significance in the Premier League era — but crises are rarely terminal, and a corner is usually turned.
So how can we describe Chelsea’s dismal 2015/16?
From the platform of a comprehensive (if not hugely memorable) title-winning year, they have delivered the capitulation to end all capitulations. Having redefined the art of winning in his first spell as manager, Jose Mourinho has now overseen a painful exhibition in how to lose football matches. To round off an autumn of discontent, Stoke City delivered what any self-respecting run of bad form should have: a morale-sapping midweek League Cup exit away from home. On penalties with Eden Hazard, one of the stars of last season who, according to the latest transfer buzz, is linked with a move away from Stamford Bridge, missing the spot kick.
As the blips of previous seasons had already suggested, Chelsea lose games like nobody else. They do not go quietly into the night. Manchester United’s dreadful season under David Moyes was characterised by meek, unimaginative surrender to lesser sides. Liverpool’s spectacular title-race derailing in 2014 was a gift to the cackling neutral, but it didn’t keep giving. Chelsea’s unfolding nightmare is on another level entirely. Rather than regaining their focus like they would in the recent past, their defeats this season have been scenes of total panic; chain reactions of fouls, yellow cards and horrified protests leaving them in a daze, on the ropes to be finished off.
Like quicksand, the more Chelsea scrap to escape it, the deeper they seem to get.
The numbers — five defeats in 10 Premier League games, conceding at a rate of almost two goals a match — can only say so much about their start. This is the most stunning collapse by a defending champion not just in terms of points and defeats, but in its chaotic manner and sensational lack of grace. Chelsea have long been a tight ball of aggression and frustration, often to their advantage, but it always ran the risk of unravelling beyond just a run of two or three untidy games.
The loss at West Ham and, in particular, Nemanja Matic’s second yellow card summed it all up. An unrivalled physical presence suddenly finding itself crumbling under pressure, unable to fathom how this could possibly have happened, and summoning only furious clumsiness in response. Then, in a fog of frustration and gleeful schadenfreude, succeeding only in making things worse. Upton Park roared with each yellow card that followed from Jon Moss’s pocket, saving another hearty honk as assistant coach Silvino Louro was sent to the stands.
Speculative comment on Mourinho’s state of mind and the whereabouts of the dressing room aside, his team have been struck down by an unprecedented number of players losing their form at the same time. In a subversive season where Jamie Vardy can muster 10 goals in as many games to generate surreal talk of an approach from Real Madrid, Chelsea’s stellar attacking threat has amounted to a couple of Diego Costa strikes and Willian’s set-piece deliveries. Eden Hazard has looked lost in the maelstrom.
Regardless of the endgame to this decline, how and when the manager makes his exit, and which brave soul comes in to turn it around, Chelsea’s season is likely to become the new benchmark for elite underperformance. “Doing a Chelsea” could potentially emulate “Doing a Leeds” (which itself warrants a 1500-word Wikipedia article) in becoming a universal phrase for falling emphatically short of expectations.
In the meantime, the language of footballing form — from the “blip” to the “crisis” — just doesn’t have the vocabulary to cover Chelsea’s perfect storm.