English Football Europe

The “trouble” with Chelsea

STamford BridgeAfter about an hour of Chelsea’s UEFA Champions League stroll against Maccabi Tel Aviv, the home crowd burst into song “Stand up for the Special One”. This was directed, of course, at Jose Mourinho, who is enduring the club’s worst start to a season since the club became serious again. All things are relative, however, and while people are talking of “crisis” and predicting Mourinho’s exit, there’s little doubt Chelsea will recover from their early term malaise at some point.

How will Chelsea fans react if the team does not regain its mojo? It has been 20 years now since Chelsea moved from under-performing mid-tablers playing in front of sub-20,000 crowds. Just consider that in the first year of the Premier, the average home crowd was a mere 18,787.

How will Chelsea fans react if the team does not regain its mojo?

Chelsea’s cachet had already been established before Abramovich turned up at the club, thanks to the influx of foreign talent and the Hoddle, Gullit, Vialli era. After a barren 26 years, Chelsea won the FA Cup in 1997 and 2000, the Football League Cup in 1998 and the European Cup Winners Cup in the same year. Crowds were growing and success had returned, although not on the grand scale we have seen since 2004-05. Certainly, Chelsea were never true title contenders in this period, with the exception of 1998-99.

Talking ‘bout a generation

There is a generation of Chelsea fans that has never known anything other than a top six place and regular silverware. The population of Stamford Bridge today is a curious pot-pourri that reflects the zeitgeist. There’s the mixture of wide-eyed and camera-wielding tourists, well-heeled media and technology workers and flight capital professionals enjoying executive box treatment. Then look around and you’ll see the balding, pot-bellied, tattooed remnants of the club’s basement years when barely 15-20,000 would turn up to see mediocrity in a blue shirt. The latter know what it’s like NOT to win things, NOT to see Chelsea at the forefront of media coverage and NOT to expect victory every week. How supporters that have been attracted by glitz, glamour and money to Stamford Bridge react to (perish the thought) a place out of the top six – a litmus test to determine if the club has cemented the loyalty of its expanded audience.

When the year has a five – 1954-55 to 2014-15

League FA Cup FL Cup Europe Av. Att Top League scorer
2014-15 1st Round 4 Winners R16 CL 41,546 Diego Costa 20
2004-05 1st Round 5 Winners SF CL 41,870 Frank Lampard 13
1994-95 11th Round 4 Round 3 SF ECWC 21,057 John Spencer 11
1984-85 6th Round 4 Semi-Final N/A 23,065 Kerry Dixon 24
1974-75 21st Round 4 Round 3 N/A 27,396 Ian Hutchinson 9
1964-65 3rd Semi-Final Winners N/.A 37,054 Barry Bridges 20
1954-55 1st R4 N/A N/A 48,260 Roy Bentley 21

But that’s not going to happen anytime soon. Chelsea’s lack-lustre start is exactly that. They do have a problem, and the sooner they acknowledge it, the better. You would get shot by a firing squad against the old Shed wall for suggesting that the Premier title has already been lost, but it has. Chelsea are 11 points behind Manchester City and given that the league leaders have significantly strengthened their squad in the summer, adding Sterling and De Bruyne to their ranks, they have moved ahead of Chelsea and their rivals. It will need a supreme effort, a City collapse and no small degree of luck to regain any initiative.

Chelsea missed the chance to reinforce their squad in the close season and before the transfer window closed, although Pedro will surely be a good acquisition. To assume that the team that so convincingly won the Premier in 2014-15, would not need new blood appeared complacent, especially as two of its key men, John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic, were over 30. They were struck on John Stones for too long and became victims of a game being orchestrated on Merseyside – we all know that eventually, Stones will end up at Chelsea, City or United and will cost well north of £30m. And their pursuit of Paul Pogba was equally protracted, but given that clubs like Barcelona have expressed an interest in the French international, probably doomed to failure.

We all know that eventually, Stones will end up at Chelsea, City or United and will cost well north of £30m

The fourth year itch

It could be that Chelsea burned themselves out in winning the Premier, particularly in the first half of the season when they accelerated off into their sunset while others were still contemplating the fixture list. It may also be that the intense world of Jose Mourinho does this to players – that it cannot be sustained in the long-term – hence he does not stay too long at any club. He extracts the maximum, wins trophies, creates records and then moves on. Has Mourinho ever rebuilt a team that he has created? It is arguable that Mourinho is a man for a project and perhaps starts to tire after three or so years. At Porto, he was there just two years before being lured to Chelsea. He enjoyed two barn-storming league campaigns with Chelsea before winning “just” the FA Cup and League Cup. Then the problems started and he left the club at the start of season four.

At Inter he had a two-year interlude that was incredibly successful and then he moved to Real Madrid, which seemed to be perpetually fractious. Back at Chelsea, he inherited an expensive squad, added to it after year one and we are in year three. Year four is the crucial one – he has never completed a fourth season with anyone. The journalist who probed Mourinho on “year three” was asking for a barbed response.

Emirates effect

Chelsea will undoubtedly address any weaknesses they have in their squad. It is an enormous squad when you consider they have 33 players out on loan, four at Dutch club Vitesse and three with Sint Truiden of Belgium. Still the club has not been able to bring players through the youth system, which is why so much hope is being placed in Ruben Loftus-Cheek.

Was Chelsea’s inability to snare Stones and Pogba, or a similar big name, in any way down to the desire of Abramovich to show some return on the investment made in Chelsea’s academy? When John Terry was subbed on the opening day against Swansea, there were suggestions that Mourinho was making a point to Abramovich that he needed new players to replace old hands like the “Captain, Leader, Legend”. Are the purse strings being closely controlled to the point where Chelsea are no longer prepared to pay the asking price for coveted players? And what will come next when the club starts building a spectacular new ground? Could Chelsea fans be in for the sort of transfer market hesitancy that characterised Arsenal’s approach during the construction and bedding-in at the Emirates?

Certainly Chelsea need a home that is fitting of their decade-long change in status. Stamford Bridge is certainly a better place than it was in the late 1970s-mid-1990s, but it is way behind the Emirates and other flag-bearing stadiums around Europe. The new ground, which will be among the best and most aesthetic in the world, will be a lasting testament to the Abramovich era.

Target Champions League?

Another Champions League title would also provide the icing on this era and may be Chelsea’s best bet in 2015-16. Looking at their form so far, that may appear a fanciful suggestion, but Mourinho being Mourinho, you can see him focusing 100% on winning a third UCL as his Premier title heads towards the northern powerhouse.

They’ve started well, with a 4-0 victory against Maccabi Tel Aviv. The Israelis were cannon fodder for Chelsea, despite enjoying tremendous support from the “Fanatics”. Chelsea needed a win, regardless of the opposition – both Mourinho and John Terry “wrote” almost identical editorials in the match programme. “In believe in my players and we have to respond like champions,” said Mourinho, while Terry added: “We know what we can do, we know the quality we have in this squad and we know we have to start showing that.” Mourinho was on page 7, Terry on page 9, but to me, they were definitely on the same page – and presumably the same fellow wrote it!

Terry, though was on the bench and former Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard, now a BT pundit, suggested there was friction behind the scenes because Terry should be playing week-in, week-out. Terry cannot go on forever, in fact no player of that vintage can be a fixture in the team – something which Gerrard himself may have found hard to accept at Liverpool. Chelsea will have to replace him soon – indeed, they have started that process. Terry does not belong to the future of Chelsea, unless he happens to land a coaching role.

What next then, for Chelsea? January may be a hectic couple of weeks for the club as they look to make-up lost ground. The quality is there but the team needs invigorating. It could all come right with a big win against the right opposition. Never write off Mourinho, however. He’s one of the top three coaches in the world. Even special people go through lean spells but judging by the Chelsea crowd’s reaction against Maccabi, they’re right behind him.



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