Third in the English Premier League and a place in the yet-to-be-played to Europa League final in Baku. One would think all is well at Chelsea and the Blues are having a good season under the Italian manager Maurizio Sarri. But, like so many seasons in the past under their owner Roman Abramovich, there are rumours of the coach being sacked in the summer, stories of player unrest and a set of fans angry about the overall direction the London club is heading towards.
Chelsea are a club in turmoil as they prepare themselves for the final match of the season – a European title-deciding match against London rivals Arsenal. The club have been banned from making any new signings in the upcoming transfer windows after allegedly breaking the rules while signing young players. Their star player, Eden Hazard, is on the verge of his dream move to Real Madrid. And Sarri, despite a positive start to his tenure, has failed to please the Chelsea fans who now want their hero Frank Lampard to take over.
(The match, to be played on Thursday at 00.30 IST, will be shown live on the SONY network, with live-streaming available on SONYLiv)
A Sarri-ball that never got rolling
Much to the surprise of many, Sarri’s reign as the Chelsea manager started very positively. The club, that for the longest time has relied on defensive, counter-attacking football, ad0pted the new possession-based style with ease but the chinks in the “Sarri-ball” armour started getting exposed closer to December as Chelsea began to look like a one-dimensional team playing through their big summer signing Jorginho.
Once teams started man-marking Jorginho, Chelsea struggled for creativity and looked in dire need of someone else to set-up the tempo. But Sarri refused to change his system and hoped his players would iron out the little mistakes. By February it was clear that the Sarri-ball wasn’t working, especially with the midfielders contributing very little in terms of attack. Fans were also disappointed to see the home-grown talents Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Callum Hudson-Odoi remain on the bench while the likes of Willian, Marcos Alonso, and Matteo Kovacic underperformed.
In fact, the Italian looked destined for the sack after a 6-0 mauling at the hands of Manchester City in February but somehow stayed afloat thanks to a run of games that saw the team regain some form. It is clear that Sarri is someone who believes in mastering his plan A rather than having a back-up plan B. Unfortunately for the Italian, he is in a team that has forever survived on pragmatism. Plan A, B and everything else was built on a simple rule – do whatever is required to win. The Blues lost that identity this season as they tried to convert themselves into free-flowing, football purists. But now they are in limbo – neither are they the formidable side that didn’t know how to lose nor are they a transformed, attacking side like the one Sarri built in Napoli.
Now, with Juventus supposedly ready to bring Sarri back to Italy, Chelsea have found themselves in crossroads. Long-term planning and faith in managers is not something you associate with the Blues but with Sarri there was a feeling that Chelsea wanted to change that image, partly influenced by the success Jurgen Klopp has had at Liverpool.
Frank Lampard has been touted as the potential replacement after leading Derby County to the Championship play-off finals but one has to wonder if the former England midfielder has enough experience to take over a Chelsea senior side. Lampard’s appointment will also signal the end of Chelsea’s pursuit for a possession-based identity. He seems to be another product of the pragmatic school of thought and will instead build a team around talented individuals and leaders on the pitch. One thing that will work in Lampard’s favour though is his familiarity with the young, academy stars in the team, especially Mason Mount, the Chelsea loanee who has been the pillar of Lampard’s success at Derby.
Chelsea’s own Brexit
Chelsea’s owner Abramovich missed the club’s matches this season after he was denied a UK visa. A delay in issuing Abramovich's investor visa owing to increased diplomatic tensions between London and Moscow (after a former Russian spy Sergei Skripal was poisoned in Salisbury) forced Abramovich to pull out his application and cancel Chelsea’s plans to expand their stadium. This was also during the time when Brexit conversations had peaked around England with the country divided on its relationship with Europe.
But there is another Brexit that has been brewing in the Chelsea camp for a while now. The fans want the team to rely on the English academy players and with social media influencers becoming powerful voices, the campaigns from the likes of Alex Goldberg has reached the ears of the decision makers of the club. The push for home-grown players have reached a point where the majority of the club’s fans are happy about the transfer ban which would force the team to play some of their academy graduates, despite Chelsea currently having a squad that is clearly not in a place to challenge Liverpool and Manchester City.
Chelsea do have one of the best academies in England and currently, have many players such as Loftus-Cheek, Hudson-Odoi, Reece James and Mason Mount ready to step into the main team but the demand to play them all is still odd from the fans of a club that built their success on talented, foreign players. There is a feeling amongst fans that the English core players are good enough but the truth might be a bitter pill to swallow. Manchester City, Liverpool and all other major English team pivot around foreign stars and to think Chelsea will be able to compete at the top level by playing more than five academy graduates is hoping too much.
The promised son
The Europa League final will in all likeliness be Hazard’s last game for Chelsea with Real Madrid already setting up his welcoming party. The diminutive Belgian came to Chelsea in the summer of 2012 after the London club won the Champions League and has been the key player for the Blues ever since.
The first trophy he won with Blues was the Europa League in 2013 and if destiny has a way with things, that could be the last trophy he wins with Chelsea as well. But to be fair, he owes Chelsea nothing, after having steered them, sometimes singlehandedly, to multiple Premier League titles.
If the myth is correct, Abramovich wanted Chelsea legend Gianfranco Zola to stay back at the club when he took over, despite the fact that the Italian had already agreed to a move back home. Zola declined the offer, but it is fair to say Abramovich found the right successor to Zola’s throne in Hazard, albeit almost a decade later. Nobody knows where Sarri will play him in the final against Arsenal with some suggesting he might start as a false-nine. But what one wouldn’t give to see Hazard uncaged on Chelsea’s left flank one last time!
Updated Date: May 29, 2019 15:49:56 IST