What’s Wrong With Chelsea?

One of the biggest debates of Mourinho’s time in Chelsea was: was Mourinho was the great manager he insisted he was, or was it Abramovich’s millions, that were behind Chelsea’s success. Isn’t it great when football’s most difficult questions get answered unequivocally?

Inter Milan have never been off top spot in the second half of the season for the last 4 years running. Mourinho’s been there for over 2 of them. Meanwhile Chelsea are on their 4th manager since Mourinho and have one FA Cup win to show for their efforts.

Given their luckless Champs league record and a spotted history of refereeing, this might be a bit unfair to Chelsea. But I’ve always maintained that there is really no reason given their players, their funding and their management strength to not have won every Premier League title since 2004.

Chelsea have shown a remarkable consistency in getting close but not close enough and despite being very much in the race, seem to have accepted that this season has also been a “failure”. The indignity of being dumped out of the CL by none other than the special one must have hurt, but surely can happen to any club at this level. There is talk about a player clear-out, and whether Ancelotti’s job is safe next season, and what Abramovich thinks about about the performance.

A comment was also made recently about how Ancelotti has looked unable to make a positive change or impact the performance from the bench. Others have pointed to the fact that he is too even tempered. Good when you need to prevent panic, but also a hindrance in being able to rouse the team.

Last year, Ferguson made a casual comment that created much controversy – he said that Chelsea were an ageing team and there wasn’t much scope for improvement. He didn’t say that they were too old to win the league, but that was how the Chelsea hierarchy reacted – and yet, that might just be the truth they need to face up to. AC Milan may have made a miracle or two happen with their ageing players, but Chelsea have struggled to get mileage out of their experience or, it seems, the capability from their younger players.

Michael Ballack has often seemed like a waste of space, Mikel has never been able to truly make up for Essien’s absence. Lampard’s engine has not been as indefatiguable as Chelsea might have wanted. Terry’s distractions have weakened both him and the team. Cech has been error prone for a few seasons now. Joe Cole has been anonymous when given a chance and Anelka shone briefly but seems like he’s lost again. Drogba is still the battering ram that keeps knocking down doors for Chelsea. Ashley Cole, till his injury was along with Evra probably the best left back in the business. Ivanovic and Alex have been competent. Florent Malouda has arguably been their best player especially in the second half of the season. But as a unit, Chelsea have only occasionally hit the kind of scintillating form that Arsenal display week in and week out and Man United whenever they have really needed to.

What’s worse is that they seem to have run out of steam. There doesn’t seem to be enough role clarity between players on the pitch. There is a sameness about Chelsea’s play that is analogous to Arsenal’s but much less watchable. There doesn’t seem to be a plan B. To be fair, this team is not built by Ancelotti, but he certainly has struggled to orchestrate them to hit title-winning form.

There is some method to Ferguson’s madness, in the way that United have made a science out of peaking in the second half of the season. Chelsea’s age makes this an even bigger necessity, but you wonder if they’ve paced themselves. And the lack of top young players has exacerbated their problem. Sturridge, Zhirkov & Kalou are the only regular first team players apart from Mikel, who are under 27, and none of the 4 make the starting 11 when everybody is fit.

Here’s a thought: this is a world cup year. It will be the last world cup for Ballack, Lampard, Anelka, Drogba and many others. How much is this playing on their minds? How much is this reflected in their effort expenditure? How much are they holding back in reserve for summer glory?

Another problem Chelsea has faced is the player-power syndrome. There are clearly players who wield a lot of power in the club, Terry key among them. Players who have been instrumental in ousting past managers are obviously influential on a day-to-day basis. Terry has often been Chelsea’s spokesman – critising referees or talking up their chances. Something you will rarely find at Arsenal or Man United is the spectacle of a player coming out after the game and complaining about the quality of refereeing. Wenger and Ferguson take that role on themselves, and there is a clear disciplinary code in place at both those clubs.

The problem is partly created by Abramovich who has backed his players at the expense of his managers. He has given Terry a massive wage hike, overpaid most of the other players and created millionaires and probably a millionaire culture. Chelsea’s salary costs are 70% of their turnover compared with 44% and 33% at Man United and Arsenal.

A clearout has been predicted, but it will need Abramovic to dip into his pocket, as very few of the stars can expect to fetch a huge price given their shelf life. And a ham-handed and indiscriminate buying of players will not do the trick.

Chelsea have thrashed Portsmouth, thereby burying the curse of the ex manager.  But hardly something that can be considered a turnaround – given that Grant’s Portsmouth have been bankrupt, relegated and trodden on by owners, administrators and debtors alike. Even so, the goal difference has improved and a convincing win over Villa at home might just set them on their way towards the title again, and they still have it in their own hands – win every match from now (including at Old Trafford) and they will win the league.

All is certainly not lost for this season. But win or lose, you have to suspect that the Chelsea team are on the verge of a Milanesque precipice – with urgent need of rejuvenation and a long term plan, with youth development and a consistent run from a manager even if it means a couple of trophyless seasons.

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