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So Far So Good for Chelsea on long Road to Perfection

Published: 06th December 2014 10:18 AM  |   Last Updated: 06th December 2014 10:18 AM   |  A+A-

Mourinho's men are ahead of the Arsenal Invincibles of 2003-04 in attempt to go through season unbeaten, writes Jeremy Wilson
 
The longer Chelsea maintain their unbeaten start to the Premier League season, the more often the question will be asked. Can Jose Mourinho emulate Arsene Wenger's 'Invincible' Arsenal team of 2003-04 by finishing a top-flight league season unbeaten?

Mourinho has clearly decided that, in public at least, the best strategy is repeatedly to claim that it remains an unachievable target. It is the exact opposite of the approach that Wenger employed. Indeed, Wenger actually annoyed some of his  players by saying that Arsenal could do it a year before it happened. Wenger felt that coming out publicly with such an unthinkably difficult target was important in subconsciously making the players believe. Wenger also now thinks that Mourinho's Chelsea cannot be discounted from emulating that feat. "It's only 10 years since we did it and football has not changed in 10 years - but it's very early to say that," he said. But is it?

The statistical comparison

A look back at past precedents demonstrates that, even by going the first third of the season unbeaten, Chelsea have already joined a very select group of teams in the Premier League era. Aside from when Arsenal finished unbeaten in  2003-04, the furthest any other team have gone into the season is the 24 matches that Manchester United managed in 2011-12. Their sequence eventually came to an end at Molineux in February.

Aside from that, Arsenal also went 15 games unbeaten in 2008, as did Manchester City in 2013, but no other club have gone past the  14-match mark Chelsea reached on Wednesday.

Mourinho did also go close once before in losing only one game in 2004-05 when Chelsea actually accumulated more points than Arsenal's Invincibles. This current Chelsea team are marginally ahead of Arsenal in 2003-04 at this same stage of the season. After 14 games, Arsenal had scored fewer goals and registered fewer clean sheets than Chelsea this season. They also had two fewer points after winning 10 of their opening 14 matches compared to Chelsea's 11 victories this season.

Chelsea, then, are ahead of the pace that Arsenal set in 2003-04. Should they avert defeat against Newcastle and then Hull City, they will also have gone further into a season unbeaten than every club since the Invincibles with the exception of United in 2011-12.

What special ingredient makes an Invincible team?

In Amy Lawrence's new book Invincible: Inside Arsenal's Unbeaten 2003-2004 Season, Wenger and the players explained what they thought were the key ingredients in that team. In his foreword, Wenger specifically highlights three attributes in his team: technical talent, physical potential, intelligence or what he calls "the mental aspect".

The technical and physical elements are fairly self-explanatory but read through Lawrence's book and what shines constantly is how Arsenal in 2003-04 were so cohesive internally despite being a team of such strong personalities. "They had charisma individually - everyone was different - but together they were even more special," said Wenger.

So can we identify a comparable blend of personality at Chelsea? John Terry and Didier Drogba are clearly an enormous dressing-room presence but Cesc Fabregas also brings the experience of captaining Arsenal while Branislav Ivanovic and Petr Cech have their long associations with the club.

Are Chelsea 2014-15 as good as Arsenal 2003-04?

Beyond their mentality, Wenger also particularly stressed the technical and physical qualities of his Invincibles. His was a team packed with wonderfully skilled players, most obviously in the range of attacking talents provided by Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp and Robert Pires. Mourinho has players of comparable creative flair in Fabregas and Eden Hazard but a less technically adept team overall.

Where Chelsea do score, though, is in the physical potential. Oscar and Diego Costa might be less skilled than Bergkamp and Henry but offer more energy and do represent a genuine first line of defence.
Both teams are similarly adaptable. Opponents of that great Arsenal team will often say how, if you wanted a physical fight, they would stand up to you and that if you tried to play football they would pass you off the park. Chelsea are not quite there yet - would they really try to pass Manchester City off the park? - but there are clear similarities and they are similarly adaptable.

Chelsea also have a superior defensive structure and more tactical variation in their preparation for specific challenges. Their creativity should not be underestimated but Arsenal's Invincibles were more fluid and unpredictable. They probably also had the superior individuals, certainly in Henry but perhaps also with Bergkamp and Patrick Vieira.

Verdict
Chelsea certainly could go the season unbeaten, even if the odds on matching Arsenal's feat are still against them. The statistics, though, do suggest that they can also become one of the finest teams of the Premier League era and there can be little doubt that Mourinho has created another squad with a formidable team ethic. They perhaps already have the defensive and tactical edge on Arsenal in 2003-04 but must still prove they have the same depth of truly all-time great players.

In terms of the competition, Arsenal were faced with greater strength within the top four of the Premier League but a weaker overall standard below. Luck, clearly, will also play its part. One delicious irony is that, should Chelsea maintain their run, it will be Wenger's Arsenal who are likely to have the best - and perhaps last - chance to stop their feat being replicated when the teams meet at the Emirates on April 25.
Get that far and what Mourinho has called his "perfect" team really will be favourites to emulate what Wenger regards as the closest you can get to "perfection" in football management.



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