To paraphrase an old school hymn, “the wise man built his house upon the rocks, and when the rain came in the house stood firm; the foolish man built his house upon the sand, and when the rain came down the house fell flat”. On that chilly January night in Bournemouth, Chelsea fell well and truly flat – the 4-0 loss became the heaviest defeat of the Roman Abramovich era. The 5-0 hammering of Huddersfield may have lifted the mood at Stamford Bridge, but there are still major discussions taking place on our playing staff, coaching staff and style of play. The foundations of Chelsea are being re-examined, and a state of confusion surrounding the club’s identity has crept in. However, I, as a frustrated yet mostly optimistic Chelsea fan, argue that this is the perfect time to create a blueprint for a new era at Chelsea.
Being honest, many fans would admit that the club’s flame has been flickering in recent years. We’ve finished outside out of the Champions League places twice in three seasons and haven’t been able to maintain a consistently high level of football. Fans of other clubs may say this is an entitled view, and point towards the two recent Premier League titles in 2015 and 2017. However, if you look at the details and nuances of those achievements you’ll see somewhat of a ‘perfect storm’ situation in both campaigns, and that there were noticeable cracks in Chelsea’s armoury. Indeed, those cracks fully opened up in the seasons that followed both league successes which cost both managers their jobs. So why, all of a sudden, have Chelsea become this unpredictable stutter of a football club?
I argue that much of Chelsea’s problems stem from the loss of a clear idea of what it means to play for Chelsea. With the legendary old guard of John Terry, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba and co. now gone, Chelsea have sleepwalked into a position of being a ‘generic’ super club with no distinct identity or character. Of course, we cannot cling to the past, nor bring it back, but that Chelsea team, and those players we all adore, created more than just great memories. The 2004 Mourinho-inspired team created an identity, a new minimum standard and a bond with the fans that felt authentic. Everyone knew what Chelsea were about. We were a very physical, gritty, powerful unit, capable of overwhelming opposition or snatching wins through our never-say-die attitude. More pragmatic than pretty, our attacking players would graft, cause defences to make mistakes and duly punish. Most new players that joined learnt the club ethos and what was required to fit in. Their sometimes lacked a little creativity, but you knew what Chelsea would typically deliver – a spirited, ‘blood and thunder’ performance.
Courtesy: Evening Standard
As the key players of that generation began to age, and Roman Abramovich sought a more aesthetically pleasing brand of football, attempts were made to evolve Chelsea into something else. Luiz Felipe Scolari started well but fizzled out, Carlo Ancelotti couldn’t keep up with mightily high post-Mourinho benchmark, and Andre Villas-Boas struggled to win over the tightly-nit dressing room. After going back to Mourinho, then collapsing in 2015-16, being revived with issues under Antonio Conte, and in the mean time the last of the old guard leaving the club, we are at a time for a new era to dawn at Chelsea. The legacy and ‘blood’ of the Mourinho era should never be lost, the ever-present fans know the standard for commitment and a winning mentality has been set; but football changes and 15 years after The Special One helped transform Chelsea into a European giant, a strong new Chelsea ‘DNA’ needs to be laid.
In Maurizio Sarri, Chelsea have a man more than capable of laying these new foundations – the Italian has a style of football in his name for Pete’s sake! Just six months into his first season, tasked with turning a juggernaut of a club to a new direction, Sarri has already found some fans and media outlets turning on him following some patchy form. This is clearly short-sighted; to turn on our new manager when it is the same group of players that cost Antonio Conte and Jose Mourinho their jobs through effectively giving up shows where the real problem lies. When asked after the 5-0 win against Huddersfield what changed since the mullering on the south-coast, Sarri bluntly replied – “we finally played my football”. This is the confidence and leadership Chelsea are crying out for, and the players need to get on board Sarri’s ship. Indeed, Eden Hazard, with his heart (and head now it seems) already in Madrid, casually laughed off Sarri comments on the Belgian “doing more” by in his own words stating “doesn’t care” what the manager has to say. To me it’s clear, we need players willing to listen and be led as a collective, only then we will create a new, evolved ‘Chelsea way’.
Without this clear new path, and with half-hearted, half-devoted players undermining the manager, Chelsea will continue to slide into being merely a collection of talent. Many fans will disengage further, become apathetic, and the richness of being a Chelsea fan and player will dilute. We are already drawing worryingly close parallels with Arsenal; putting out infuriatingly spineless displays, lacking leadership and getting rolled over. We’ve become ‘un-Chelsea’, a tad ‘jellylike’ since our original old guard spine has left the dressing room, and therefore it is imperative that a long-term plan is established to halt this decline.
What should happen? Well that’s where faith in the manager’s philosophy comes in. Sarri’s three year contract will only be worth the investment if the whole club binds together and we form a clear playing style and new team identity. The teams at the top of the Premier League are all playing wonderful attacking football, and Chelsea have to match them in both style and success. Our aforementioned ‘Mourinho legacy’ with regards to our mentality also needs to be reincarnated. The return of the old guard in coaching or behind the scenes roles would be the perfect remedy for this; not only will the link to our historic success improve performances and rekindle the players-fans relationship, but it will keep the vitally important feeling of ‘proper Chelsea’ flowing around Stamford Bridge. Football is an emotional sport, feelings and club culture should never be dismissed, and this is especially important when recruiting new players.
To summarise, Chelsea are in no man’s land regarding the identity of the club. We remember the glory days fondly but our mojo is still damaged from the disaster of the 2015-16 season. However, with the old guard gone and our influential current star man on the verge of leaving, Chelsea will become somewhat of a clean slate for Maurizio Sarri to create a strong new structure. Recalling some of of our old resilience and focusing wholeheartedly on the Sarriball philosophy should be the top priority at the Cobham training ground. At 60 years of age, Sarri may not reap all the rewards of his work, but he could be the man to set the wheels in motion in building a new footballing machine for the next decade at Stamford Bridge.