GEORGE HARRISON once sang, “All things must pass”, a reminder that no matter how presumptious the human condition can be, nothing lasts forever. In the context of football, both Liverpool and Manchester United now realise that the regimes they created, supposedly rock solid and built to endure, eventually succumbed to the changing times and new pretenders. We can never assume that success is a given and that what worked yesterday will be effective tomorrow.
Chelsea have had an extraordinary run since Roman Abramovich bought the club for £ 140 million from Ken Bates in 2003, 15 trophies in 15 years. They have won trophies in 10 of those seasons, with five blank campaigns, usually costing someone their job. Whatever people think of the way this has been achieved, only Liverpool (21 trophies in 15 seasons between 1975-76 and 1989-90) and Manchester United (16 between 1998-99 and 2012-13) can match this level of success in modern English football.
At the same time, Chelsea have had 13 managerial changes, including temporary installations Avram Grant, Guus Hiddink and Rafa Benitez. Seven of their 15 trophies were won by Jose Mourinho. If the rumours are correct, the club is about to dispense with Mauricio Sarri, who was only appointed in the summer of 2018.
The sacking of yet another manager will come as no surprise to anyone, Chelsea have operated a “zero tolerance” policy to failure since Abramovich took over and unless Sarri wins the UEFA Europa League, it will be the club’s sixth silverware-free campaign in 2018-19. Chelsea could argue that the number of trophies won suggests the model works, but cynics would say the constant hiring and firing is the whim of a wealthy man who throws the toys out of the blue and white pram when things don’t go his way. Chelsea have become a club that thrives on drama, controversy and constant intrigue.
This has continued in 2018-19, a season that now threatens to go horribly wrong as a place in the UEFA Champions League starts to look less likely. Chelsea have, somewhat reluctantly, become a Europa League candidate – they may have to win the competition now to get a backdoor route into the Champions League. Even if Sarri lasts through to the end of the campaign, it looks almost certain that the out-of-sorts Italian will be going home come May.
The managerial position aside, there’s a horrible cocktail in the shaker at the moment at Chelsea. Player power has often simmered away at the club – remember Willian and Conte? – and the behaviour of Kepa at Wembley left a lot to be desired. That the world’s most expensive keeper should openly defy his manager implies there’s a lack of respect for Sarri. Equally, the reaction from Sarri highlights the unease that exists in the dugout. This was no “misunderstanding”, this was defiance on the part of Kepa. It does make you wonder how many “Osgood and Hudson” situations there might be at Chelsea – it wouldn’t be the first time (this is a club that is quite good at self-destruction) and the recent past has revealed that players come before managers at Stamford Bridge.
If Eden Hazard leaves the club in the close season, and with each setback and disruptive event, that will become more probable, Chelsea will have lost their prize asset and the one player that can be considered genuinely world class. It will leave the first team squad bereft of top-line talent. The club’s activity in the transfer market in recent years has not been impressive. Gonzalo Higuain has been an outstanding striker, but he is 31. Furthermore, he’s on loan from Juventus, the second loan player in the space of six months, Real Madrid’s Mateo Kovačić being the other. Notwithstanding the qualities of the respective players, the fact Chelsea are taking loan players from Juventus and Real Madrid says something about a diminished status, does it not?
Regardless of these deals, some of the transfers over the past few seasons have been truly underwhelming, hinting at real problems in the selection of prospective new signings and the methods used to determine their value to the squad. Too many players have not worked out: Bakayoko, Morata, Drinkwater, Batshuayi and Remy to name but a few. Furthermore, there are the short-termers like Giroud and Higuain, that do not hint at future-planning, no matter how useful they might be for a limited period. Chelsea do not appear to be in the market for genuinely top names anymore. Of course, this is all academic for the next two transfer windows.
Chelsea’s transfer ban, should it prevail, may allow the club to give players like Callum Hudson-Odoi a chance. Is he that good, or is it a case of over-rating a player because he represents the only home-grown youngster to stake a claim for regular first team football? Will he just go the same way as Tammy Abraham or Dominic Solanke?
Hudson-Odoi could be special, the fact that Bayern Munich are interested suggests Chelsea could be missing a trick if they do not sign him up long-term, make him a regular and send a signal to the rest of their squad (and indeed football), that talent can be nurtured, not just brought in for a truckload of cash. Old-time Chelsea fans will remind the club that it was once renowned for rearing its own, even in successful times rather than just when the finances demanded.
The real gorilla in the room is the future of the club’s ownership and Stamford Bridge. With Tottenham Hotspur about to open a new 62,000 stadium, the financial benefits of bigger crowds and peripheral activities will elevate the North London club to new heights. Add to that Arsenal’s Emirates and West Ham’s stadium and Chelsea are falling behind their London neighbours. The club needed the Stamford Bridge redevelopment, not just for fiscal reasons, but also to stamp their mark on European football. As the age of the uber club accelerates, the next step for Chelsea was to create a stadium that would cement their place among the elite. The fact that the project has been put on hold, with no apparent sign of being rekindled, suggests that Abramovich may not see his involvement as being long-term.
You could argue that 15 years is enough, that he has demonstrated his commitment to Chelsea and given the club more success than even the most myopic fan could have dreamed of, certainly anyone who stood and froze on the vast Stamford Bridge terraces in the club’s darkest times in the early 1980s.
At the same time, during Abramovich’s reign Chelsea have moved into the bracket of clubs that generate huge sums of money. In 2002-03, revenues stood at € 134 million, while in 2017-18, they had risen 252% to € 505 million.
Abramovich, particularly in his early years, funded headline signings for the club – players like Torres, Schevchenko and Ballack. Chelsea had a big advantage over many European clubs in that period, but it was the Russian that really opened the door for other super-rich people to enter the football market. As a result, the club found itself competing against others that were more resourced and, arguably, more stable. The signings became less impressive, the trophies a little less regular. Tellingly, between 2003-04 and 2008-09, Chelsea reached the last four of the UEFA Champions League five times in six seasons. On the last three occasions they have participated they have failed to get beyond the last 16. And, even more concerning, they are not competing in 2018-19 for the second time in three seasons.
Each managerial appointment comes with a similar message. There’s a checklist: great, entertaining football; UEFA Champions League; building a dynasty “I want to stay here for ever”. But Chelsea are running out of gold-plated managerial hirings. Who will they get next? Who will be interested in a two-year venture that could, in all probability, end in tears?
As for Abramovich, he’s run into bureaucratic problems and has not been seen at Stamford Bridge this season. How long can a man with a substantial investment in the UK continue to maintain interest if he’s not allowed in the country?
It would seem the time is right for Abramovich to exit and there are stories that he’s looking for € 3 billion for the club. That may seem a little high, estimations of the true value of the club are somewhat less, but Chelsea will be an attractive investment.
A new owner could provide the opportunity for a proper business model to emerge at Stamford Bridge, one that eschews short-termism and builds for the long-term. The club has a successful youth policy in so far that it develops players, but nobody filters through to the first team. The number of loan players, currently over 40, is ludicrous when Chelsea often complains about the limitations of their first team squad. Admittedly, this is part of a model of sorts, one that snaps-up players and lends them out, thus depriving rivals of young talent. But is it the right thing to do?
With the current season threatening to get out of control – Dynamo Kyiv in the Europa will certainly test them – Abramovich’s future uncertain, a ground that has its limitations and the continued revolving door on the manager’s office, Chelsea increasingly look like a club that is one setback away from a major crisis. In the past, an air of “creative tension” has proved to be productive, but eventually, every drug loses its potency. The club needs to change if it is to remain sustainable and competitive in the future. But does it really want to?