"The decision to form a football club at Stamford Bridge 100 years ago was heralded by the tenacious bite of a terrier on the leg of founder Henry Augustus 'Gus' Mears. It was an inauspicious start to what has become one of the most compelling and dramatic stories in football," lifelong Chelsea FC fan Rick Glanvill wrote in the club's official biography.
The English club, which will turn 113-years old in a little less than two weeks time, boasts of an intriguing history full of moments of absolute exuberance and periods of appalling doom, but has mostly captured the attention of the wider footballing universe in the last two decades, after Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich purchased the club.
Years before big-money transfers became the norm and the commercial aspect of ‘the beautiful game’ took precedence leading to meteoric rise of clubs like Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain, and establishment of clubs like RB Leipzig, the Blues from West London had broken the mould with their approach to success on the pitch – ruthless in the mercato, brutal while dealing with managers and fearless to smash the wage caps time and again, all due to a singular pursuit – trophies in England and Europe.
Chelsea have arguably been the most successful English club in the last fifteen years, winning all major domestic and European honours, creating and breaking records, signing some of the finest footballers of this generation, yet they have just been shy of shattering the ultimate ceiling – putting together an enterprise which finds them a place among the likes of Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, the cream of the crop.
And now, Chelsea, for the first time in a decade, risk losing their mantle to Manchester City who have simply based their project on Chelsea's model and perfected the flaws. Meanwhile, the Roman Abramovich-owned club's long-term ambitions have been jeopardised by its penchant for prioritising short-term goals, the very formula which made Chelsea so successful.
Since Jose Mourinho's departure the first time in 2007, the club has gone through as many as ten managers (discounting Ray Wilkins and Steven Holland for they took charge only for one game each), sacrificing stability in the managerial chambers for opulence in the trophy cabinet – a complete antithesis of their derby rivals Arsenal – yet the defending English champions stand at a crucial juncture in the history of the club, for the upcoming summer could either lay the foundations for the next decade or set the club towards a future of mid-table conundrum.
Dating back to Andre Villas-Boas' appointment in 2011, the Chelsea board have attempted to build a 'project' with fluent football and home-grown young players as its cornerstone for as many as three times, but have fallen prey to their ambitions for glory on the pitch. The club has gone through different footballing ideologies in Villas-Boas, Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte, with a number of interim managers in Robbie di Matteo, Rafael Benitez and Guus Hiddink (some of whom have brought pinnacles of European success).
However, the club is nowhere close to settling down on a particular identity. The phase of transition (initiated by Villas-Boas) of the core of the squad from the Old Guard to the likes of Cesar Azpilicueta, Thibaut Courtois, N'Golo Kante and Eden Hazard was not completed until last year with John Terry's departure, yet there is a void of leadership which often cripples the first-team in big games.
In a season after they had reclaimed the Premiership and when they spent millions of pounds to bring in fresh blood all across the pitch, the current results and the speculations surrounding their manager suggest the club has only regressed – so much that there is a realistic chance of Chelsea losing two of its best players in Hazard and Courtois come next June.
On one hand, Chelsea have one of the finest youth academies in Europe, which has been churning out players of Premier League quality for the last couple of seasons. On the other, Chelsea’s scouting system and their concept of ‘buying young, talented players and developing them through their incredible loan network’ has finally been proven this season, for not only the prodigious Andreas Christensen has broken through the ranks, but also the fact that the Blues were the first to stake claim of Kevin de Bruyne and Mohamed Salah when both were relatively unknown prospects.
Yet, the first-team squad has struggled in quantity and quality – mostly because of the lack of a true 'technical director of football' at the helm. While the frequent chopping and changing of managers led to trophies, the oscillation among footballing philosophies has left the club with a disjointed squad.
The appointment of Antonio Conte after the disastrous 2015/16 season was a no-brainer from a tactical viewpoint, but was baffling nonetheless, for Conte has never been interested in helming a slowly growing enterprise, or as the Italian suggested that he ends up at "clubs who run austerity programmes".
The board's outlook to the transfer market has been equally perplexing, as the club has refused to pay market price for Romelu Lukaku and Alex Sandro, but overspent on players of mediocre quality like Danny Drinkwater and Davide Zappacosta as stop-gap squad options, while academy players of similar ability who only needed a season or two under their belt were overlooked. The fact that Ethan Ampadu has been more impactful in midfield than Drinkwater is a testament to the errs of Chelsea's way during the transfer windows.
With the impending remodelling of Stamford Bridge looming in near future, the Chelsea board will be further hard-pressed for funds, as they aim to execute Abramovich's noble intent of making the club self-sustainable for years to come, but they are fast running out of time to formulate a feasible scheme of winning trophies with a stabilised squad during the period of rebuilding.
It is all but given that Antonio Conte will no longer be at the club, come end of the season. While the likes of Luis Enrique, Thomas Tuchel and Carlo Ancelotti continue to be linked with Chelsea, the board must choose wisely for their next possible managerial appointment. Irrespective of who holds the position, it is crucial that the club's aspirations align with the manager's ambitions, the club's signings in the transfer market complement the crown jewels of the squad, and the rough diamonds in the youth academy and the loan programme are cultivated and not cast away for a rival club to benefit from.
As Rick Glanvill underlined in his book, "It is a club with its own personality: fashionable, artistic and innovative, but also erratic, inconsistent and aloof. It has often entertained, regularly frustrated and produced unforgettable moments of glory," Chelsea are unpredictable, but they could be equally awe-inspiring should they wish to.
Updated Date: Mar 01, 2018 11:08:03 IST