In June 2003 Roman Abramovich rocked English football buy purchasing Chelsea FC – as a hobby, rather than a business investment. Over the past eight years he has invested millions of pounds in players, coaches, administrational staff and facilities; including a swanky new training complex in Cobham. However, if you look at the current state of Chelsea, I think it’s fair to say that they’re not going to compete for the title this season – and, unless major strategic changes take place, will struggle to do so in the near future.
It’s important to say that Chelsea have been England’s second most successful club (behind MUFC) since 2003 – they have won the Premier League three times, FA Cup three times and two League Cups. Star players have taken them to within one kick of the Champions League and, through the likes of Lampard, Terry, A Cole and J Cole; Chelsea provided the core of the England side for half a decade. Unfortunately for their fans it looks like this era is sharply coming to an end.
In 2008, whilst playing a characteristic media wind-up, Sir Alex Ferguson suggested that Chelsea would struggle to compete in a season when they had so many ageing players. At the time, Chelsea’s oldest first team player was Michael Ballack (31) with Lampard, Drogba and Carvalho (all 30) shortly behind. Obviously Ballack and Carvalho have now moved on, but the fact remains that Chelsea now have Cole, Malouda, Terry (all 30), Ferreira, Anelka (both 32), Drogba and Lampard (both 33) all competing for places in the starting XI.
I’m not saying it’s bad to have experienced players, it’s a necessity, but I do believe that these players represent a style of play and motivated dressing room that existed five years ago. The problem is that, collectively, they’re a bigger presence than every manager since Mourinho.
Every (permanent) boss from Scolari to Grant and Ancelotti has known that they’ve needed to win the league in order to keep their job – that seems to be Roman’s minimum requirement. As a result they have needed to build a team, fit to win the league, within weeks/months of moving into the position. It’s understandable to see the gamble in clearing out the likes of Terry and Lampard in order to bleed through untested talent such as Jeffrey Bruma or Josh McEachran.
It would have also be a risk to move away from the 2004/2005 system of 4-3-3, with Drogba spearheading the attack, supplemented by hard working wingers and 20 goal Lampard attacking from deep. Managers have tried, but none have succeeded.
Scolari was gone after seven months as a result of players reportedly refusing to adopt his tactics or training sessions. In addition, Ancelotti initially tried to introduce his preferred ‘Diamond’ formation from AC Milan, only to realise that Drogba needs to be the focal point and Lampard is only effective if attacking from deep.
Since Mourinho left, success has always been achieved through keeping the current group of players happy, playing the same system, in order to try and win trophies in the short-term. However, the appointment of Andre Villas-Boas suggested that Roman Abramovich may be ready to move past this ethos and invest in a long-term relationship, with an up-and-coming young manager who could revolutionise an ageing squad.
AVB is a talented manager who has enjoyed immediate success at Porto. He plays a typically European system in having a pressing 4-2-3-1 formation, with adventurous full-backs covered by two deep-lying central midfielders, one to break up play and the other a playmaker, and pacey centre-back(s) playing a high line. His wingers are generally inverted and the man behind the striker plays as the creative talisman. Overall, this is a system that suits the likes of Torres and Mata.
The problem for Villas Boas is that the majority of players struggle to fit the system. John Terry and David Luiz are poor playing further up the pitch, Mikel can’t break up play in the defensive midfield role, Lampard is neither a deep-lying or advanced playmaker and Drogba can’t play the intricate, slide-rule football that the system promotes.
Unfortunately for Villas Boas, Roman Abramovich has a precedent of changing managers when they can’t get the squad of players performing as he feels they should be. As everyone knows, this is ridiculous. AVB needs to be given time and job security - we’re three months into the season and the vultures are already circling around Stamford Bridge.
Chelsea need Villas-Boas to filter out the big earning Drogba, Anelka and Malouda and invest in the likes of Hazard, Gotze and M’Vila. He also needs to feel confident in giving Lukaku, Oriol and McEachran a chance, through minutes on the pitch, so that they can help to develop the next title winning era at the club.
Look at Man United, they may not win the league this year, probably won’t, but they’re bleeding through Jones, Smalling, Cleverley, Welbeck, De Gea, Fabio, Rafael, and more. In three years’ time United will have a squad of top international footballers, potentially winning the league whilst still in their early twenties. As it stands, Chelsea will have an even older squad, a new manager and far less trophies than they should do.
All of this alludes to Roman Abramovich needing to accept that Chelsea’s side needs to be rebuilt, and that a change in managerial personnel isn’t the answer. They need to ensure that only the model professionals stay at the club past 30 and, if they do, it’s for the transitional period; to help bring through the next era of players at the club. Player power needs to be ripped out of the dressing room and, as with Man City and Man Utd, the players need to know that the manager has total control of the club.
But will this happen?
Regrettably for Chelsea fans, I think that AVB will be gone by next season, their big guns will stay, Roman will continue to dictate acquisitions and CFC will continue to slip further behind the likes of Manchester United and Manchester City.