Opinion: Chelsea have far bigger problems than whose name is on the manager’s door

By Lewis Michie

While it may not be over yet, the 2017/18 season appears it will go down in history as one to forget for Chelsea.

In typical Chelsea fashion, Antonio Conte’s side have followed up on major success last term with the standard landslide that Mourinho and Ancelotti sides have experienced in the recent past.

That type of pattern may be something to worry about for the Stamford Bridge hierarchy and – should they wish this familiar situation to finally be resigned to the history books – a lot more than the name on the manager’s door may need to change this time around.

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The Blues have been knocked out of the Champions League by Barcelona, eliminated in the League Cup semi-final by rivals Arsenal and currently sit fifth in the Premiership, four points adrift of the Champions League qualification places.

Their season has not only been filled with inconsistencies and struggles in big matches, but has also seen struggles for the Premier League Champions in the transfer market, as well as coach Antonio Conte’s five at the back system, a system highly praised last season, coming under plenty of criticism.

None of Conte’s transfers have truly gone down as major successes. The manager himself has openly complained about his struggles to sign his targets and how little his influence over who joins the club is, saying: “From the summer, the club decides every single player that comes here.

“Sometimes I can have an impact on this; sometimes you can’t have an impact. My first task is to do my job, to be a coach, to try to improve my players. For sure, I don’t have a big impact on the transfer market.”

 

Alvaro Morata has, in the grand scheme of things, done relatively well – scoring 13 goals and assisting five – but many of those came closer to the opening of the season and after costing such a large amount of money many onlookers have felt he should have made a bigger impact.

Davide Zappacosta has by no means been a failure but the wing back has failed to make the right side his own, still largely playing back up to Victor Moses.

Antonio Rudiger has made 36 appearances in all competitions and may well be the best of the bunch and it may also be too soon to pass judgement on Oliver Giroud and Emerson but neither has made an immediate impact.

Meanwhile the signings of Ross Barkley, Danny Drinkwater and Tiemoue Bakayoko have come under heavy criticism – with many fans writing off the two English midfielders before they’d even played.

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As mentioned, Chelsea have fallen into the trend of having a season of success and then crashing back down to earth during the next one.

Another tendency Chelsea have demonstrated is the type of manager they bring to the club. Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti and Conte are probably the three coaches whom have brought the most success in the Abramovich era – with Roberto Di Matteo bringing the unlikely Champions League victory and Guus Hiddink bringing stability in tough times.

The first three share quite a few qualities. All three coaches have a way they play, are unlikely to change and there is a certain stubbornness to all the managers that may reveal part of the reason why Chelsea continue to find themselves going round in circles.

All three have experienced issues with their own players. Mourinho is notorious for deciding he isn’t keen on a player before getting rid and it was this attitude that saw Chelsea cut ties with Mohamed Salah, Kevin De Bruyne, Juan Mata and Romelu Lukaku (interestingly his tenure at Manchester United shows he’s changed his mind on the final two).

 

Conte has had similar experiences. The most commonly known is his decision to tell Diego Costa he was free to leave Chelsea last summer after the Spaniard fired Chelsea towards the Premier League title last term with 20 league goals.

The Italian’s judgement on strikers was also brought into question again recently with Michy Batshuayi scoring eight times, since moving on loan to Borussia Dortmund in January, after Conte gave the Belgian limited playing time.

Ancelotti perhaps had the harshest exit as – with a League and cup double in his first season and a second-placed finish to a talented Manchester United side the next – the Italian certainly didn’t crash and burn.

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While reports of clashes with players at Chelsea weren’t as heavily reported, it wasn’t an easy ride for the former AC Milan manager either. There were reports of players holding crisis meetings without the manager and Ancelotti later revealed in an interview that he had major problems with a key member of the squad showing him disrespect.

It also would not be surprising to find the former Champions League winner’s relationship with the players had something to do with his sacking. Ancelotti was sacked from his job with German champions Bayern Munich earlier this season, with German magazine Kicker claiming key players, including former Chelsea man Arjen Robben, organised training sessions without their manager.

Of course one of Chelsea’s other well-known trends is the frequency with which they sack their managers.

A total of 14 managers in the Roman Abramovich era (including caretakers) is unusually high considering, in the same era, the club has achieved five Premier League titles, four FA Cup triumphs, three league cups, a Europa League and of course a Champions League.

Incredibly the coach who delivered half of those trophies – Jose Mourinho – has been sacked twice by Abramovich.

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Many commentators have questioned if continuing with this sacking culture is best for the long-term future of the club. Adversely, opponents to that point of view question whether keeping a coach who may not be right for the club is truly worth dismantling that culture of firing the manager.

Results aren’t the only thing Chelsea supporters have long been concerned with. In fact, results are often the stick supporters use to beat Chelsea over the head with when campaigning for better youth and transfer policies.

Chelsea allowed the likes of Mohammad Salah, Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne to slip through their fingers, players who have cost a combined £165 million since, with De Bruyne looking likely to win a Premier League title this season and Salah looking almost as likely to win a Premier League golden boot.

The Blues have also failed to bring through and establish a great degree of their youth squad, a youth squad which has won six of the previous eight FA Youth cups, as well as Premier league titles at U18 and U21 level and twice winning the UEFA Youth League.

 

Danish centre back Andreas Christensen has been the best example of breaking into the Chelsea first team after performing for the youth side. The centre half has played 35 times in all competitions for Conte this season having played for the decorated youth team and spent two years on loan in the German Bundesliga with Borussia Mönchengladbach.

Unfortunately, the Dane is really the only true example of this. Previous years have seen high praise for the likes of Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Charly Musonda, Isaiah Brown, Dominic Solanke, Kasey Palmer and Tammy Abraham. All but Solanke have found themselves out on loan this season, none of them particularly setting the world alight. Meanwhile Solanke moved to Liverpool, hoping to improve his chances of first team football. While the Englishman has likely played more than he would have at Stamford Bridge, he’s had little time to impress Jürgen Klopp.

 

For many Chelsea supporters, the problem is twofold. Firstly the club has not looked to give these players their chance at their parent club, but on top of that, while they can acknowledge loan deals can sometimes be better for a player’s development, these deals have not been productive for their star youngsters.

The choice of club to which their players are loaned is a particular gripe. Manchester City are similarly guilty of stockpiling players and sending them out on loan, with Pep Guardiola currently having over 40 players loaned out, Chelsea not quite reaching 40.

A major difference comes down to how City pick and choose where their players go. The Manchester side look to pick particular teams that play a style of football that’s agreeable with them, plus a team likely to give their players game time. Other than the guaranteed multiple loans to Vitesse, Chelsea don’t appear to have much rhyme or reason to their loan deals.

This has led to complications – some have spoken out saying that if many of these players were capable of playing for Chelsea, why are they not shining for their loan clubs.

It’s not quite as simple as that though. These players have been plucked from one of the most successful youth academies in the country. At this academy they generally spent many matches on the front foot, controlling possession and dominating games of football.

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That would make sense, as if they were to play for Chelsea in the future, that’s likely to be how they will experience numerous games of football.

However, they are then sent out on loan to the likes of Swansea, Brighton and Crystal Palace. All three teams share a couple of things in common – they all sit in the bottom half of the overall Premier League possession table, all with under 50% accumulative possession, all fighting to avoid relegation.

Finally, to top it off, they all play different styles of football from each other, never mind differently from the style of Chelsea.

When you look at some of the emerging talent throughout Europe, how many realistically spend season upon season out on loan. Many are thrown into the deep water in a sink or swim situation.

Scott McTominay has been tested by Jose Mourinho this season and has been awarded with games in the Champions League and an international call-up. Marco Asensio was twice loaned out by Real Madrid, but was eventually given the opportunity to play alongside the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo.

Finally, while at a much different level, Kieran Tierney has shined for Celtic and been linked with multiple Premier League clubs. Tierney at the age of 17 was given his debut and has hardly looked back, playing regularly in a title-winning side and competing in the Champions League. This has been incredibly productive and many would imagine he’d not have achieved what he has, nor reached the level he has, had the young left back been loaned out to the likes of Partick Thistle or Dundee.

 

Another issue that has come due to Chelsea’s lack of vetting sides is the lack of game time some players have experienced. After 15 goals and seven assists last season for Vitesse, midfielder Lewis Baker has been restricted to just 14 appearances for Championship team Middlesbrough. The Championship is a tricky league and with a managerial change mid-season you can understand why a younger player like Baker may have struggled for game time, but surely a player who performed as Baker did in the Eredivisie can have value to a Championship side.

Additionally, it was clear to many that Baker was struggling for playing time during the January transfer window and Chelsea did not decide to use their call back clause. This was a heavily unpopular move, as you’d imagine there would surely be a club at a similar level willing to give Baker minutes.

It’s both Chelsea’s inability to blood youngsters through and their inability to see mistakes they were in the process of making when they sold the likes of Salah that could be bigger problems than their manager.

It might be too late for some of Chelsea’s youngsters, and it’s certainly too late for them to get Lukaku, Salah and De Bruyne back. However, Chelsea supporters would like to see the appointment of a manager and new policies that could prevent more of those mistakes.

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Less stockpiling of players that will never play for the club – although this may be an unfortunate reality of being a big club in 2018 – more chances for the likes of Loftus-Cheek, Abraham and Lewis Baker and not allowing Batshuayi, Kenedy and Charly Musonda to become the next ones that got away.

This type of progression would take a few changes. It would likely begin with the appointment of a new more progressive coach, in the mould of a Jürgen Klopp, Mauricio Pochettino or Pep Guardiola.

This would be followed by a drastic cut of the amount of loan players – some would be cut off completely, some players will still suit loans, but two or three of the very best youngsters should be chosen to be given significant game time alongside stars like Morata, Willian and Hazard.

Those loaned out should have their destinations chosen more carefully chosen. There should be more patience in the younger players and a greater policy of rotation should be put in place, a policy that would have suited Batshuayi for example.

 

Finally, the outlook of attempting to sign the likes of Emerson, Giroud, Barkley and Drinkwater should be abandoned. These are signings that do not excite and, put simply, do not improve the squad when those places could be made up by some of the younger players. Additionally collective transfer fees could be slimmed down into making one or two transfers of real quality.

Many Premier League rivals of Manchester City’s are worried the citizens will dominate the league for years to come. Those with such worries, however, would do well to remember that such speculation was made about Chelsea both last season and in the 2014/15 season.

The Premier League changes quickly and, if Chelsea make the right moves, they could still be up at the top competing for the title again next season but change is clearly needed.

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