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Singing the Blues — change of guard plunges Chelsea into soccer abyss

Singing the Blues — change of guard plunges Chelsea into soccer abyss
Chelsea owner Todd Boehly reacts following a Premier League match against Newcastle United at Stamford Bridge in London on 11 March 2024. (Photo: Chris Brunskill / Fantasista / Getty Images)

It will take Chelsea a long time to re-establish itself as a powerhouse.

Once upon a time English soccer club Chelsea was overflowing with players who were outstanding not only for their abilities as athletes but also for their personalities as leaders.

Almost everywhere you turned there were captains of national teams. Club captain John Terry, who was recently inducted into the Premier League Hall of Fame, was also the skipper of England. Deadly forward Didier Drogba wore the captain’s armband for Ivory Coast, and goalkeeper Petr Čech was the designated choirmaster for the Czech Republic.

There were also the likes of German midfield great Michael Ballack, Serbian right back Branislav Ivanović and Nigerian midfield anchor John Obi Mikel. All were captains of their national teams while playing for Chelsea.

Chelsea’s character

Even players such as Ghana’s Michael Essien, Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard were exceptional leaders. The Blues had a collection of big personalities in their dressing room, with managers such as Carlo Ancelotti and José Mourinho leading this fierce pack admirably.

Of course, having players of such calibre was not always an easy path to navigate for managers, especially if you were not a Mourinho or Ancelotti type, as then young and ambitious Portuguese manager André Villas-Boas found out when he took charge of Chelsea’s talented squad back in 2011.

During his nine-month stint in London, Villas-Boas (who was 33 when Chelsea hired him) was said to have been regularly undermined by the team’s senior players, especially when the club dropped out of top-four contention – something that had not happened since they finished sixth in 2002.

Chelsea

Axel Disasi of Chelsea reacts after missing a chance to score during their Premier League match against Arsenal at Emirates Stadium in London on 23 April 2024. (Photo: Catherine Ivill – AMA / Getty Images)

The standard at the Blues was extremely high, with Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich pumping in millions of his personal money into the club upon buying it in 2003. Ancelotti was an example of how ruthless the Russian was during his 19-year tenure as the Blues’ owner.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Wealthy club owners are not always an instant fix – Spain’s Valencia is an example

The decorated Italian manager led Chelsea to an impressive league and FA Cup double during the 2009/10 season, his first one in charge of the club. A season later Chelsea finished second in the league and failed to win any cup. Abramovich showed Ancelotti the door as a result.

Of course, the model of splurging money on the best players and managers every season was never going to be sustainable, especially with the hierarchy of the Premier League introducing profit and sustainability rules back in 2013.

The reforms were an attempt to somewhat level the financial playing field between the big and small clubs in English soccer.

However, in the end it was a non-soccer matter that brought the “Roman Empire” crumbling down, as the Russian was sanctioned by the British government for alleged close ties to Vladimir Putin when the Russian head of state launched an invasion into Ukraine in 2022.

Abramovich was forced to sell the club after helping the Blues to become a global force that won 18 trophies during his reign, the most of any English club in that period.

Change of guard

To say Chelsea is a completely different team to what Abramovich built would be an understatement. A recent 5-0 drubbing to fellow London side Arsenal laid bare all the current discord at the club.

The loss took Chelsea comfortably to more than 50 goals conceded this season – the most that the club has shipped in since the start of the Premier League in 1992. It is also in stark contrast to their English record of just 15 goals conceded during the 2004/05 season, a campaign in which they also lost just one match on the way to winning the league.

The current Chelsea team does not possess the slightest whiff of being as colossal as that generation. This is despite the fact that the Clearlake Capital consortium that took over the club upon Abramovich’s departure in 2022 has splurged £1-billion on acquiring new players.

Whereas under the club’s former Russian owner the strategy was to target ready-made players to come and perform at the club, the Clearlake Capital group has taken a different route.

It has targeted young prospects, although these potential starlets have been bought for exorbitant sums. Yet week after week they have mostly failed to show the quality required for Chelsea to compete with the likes of Liverpool, Manchester City and Arsenal.

Only one of the recruited youngsters, former City midfielder Cole Palmer, has impressed since joining the Blues before the start of this season. He has scored the bulk of Chelsea’s goals and also provided some assists. However, he cannot do it alone.

His teammates, such as Moisés Caicedo, Enzo Fernández and Mykhailo Mudryk, have blown hot and cold during their time at Stamford Bridge.

It can be argued that most of Chelsea’s players are under the age of 25 and still have time to blossom. However, the Blues’ loss to Liverpool in the final of the Carabao Cup showed that their problems run deeper than their players merely being inexperienced.

Chelsea

Chelsea Head Coach Mauricio Pochettino looks dejected during a Premier League match against Arsenal at Emirates Stadium in London on 23 April 2024. (Photo: Marc Atkins / Getty Images)

The wrong history

The 1-0 loss to the Reds at the end of February was Chelsea’s sixth in an English domestic cup final. Ironically, during the match Liverpool were missing a number of first-team starters, which meant Jürgen Klopp had to rely heavily on recent academy graduates who are even more inexperienced than Chelsea’s expensively assembled cohort. Yet the Reds’ youngsters shone on the day.

One issue that continually plagues the London side is inconsistency. They can play a match where they look hungry to win, then capitulate completely in the next game.

“It’s true we did not compete. I cannot blame the players; as a team we are showing this inconsistency. That is why we are where we are, because we are capable of having an amazing performance, and three days later [we are] at the other extreme,” Chelsea’s Argentinian manager Mauricio Pochettino said after the Arsenal thrashing.

“When we have bad days, we are so bad. When we are good, we are capable of everything. But it’s another thing that we need to be aware that we need to improve for the future,” the 52-year-old stated.

With Chelsea rooted to mid-table for much of this campaign, calls are increasing for Pochettino to vacate the hot seat. If indeed he is fired after just one season, whoever succeeds him will become the third person to take over the reins full-time since the Blues’ new ownership took over. When they arrived, Thomas Tuchel was in charge. But he was fired not long after the start of the 2022/23 season.

Then came Graham Potter. He was fired in April 2023 after a run similar to the one Chelsea are experiencing at the moment. Chelsea’s former midfielder Lampard took over in the interim before Pochettino was announced as Chelsea’s potential saviour at the start of this campaign.

He is yet to live up to this tag but may not be granted the opportunity to do so, as pressure mounts with each passing game. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R35.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Syd Boston says:

    Too right Yanga – the rate at which too many clubs sack managers is insane. The reality is that success is the result of a whole team behind – and in conjunction with – the manager and this takes time to fruition. Guess that’s why they get the big bucks.

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