A Very Blue Identity

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The Chelsea of the twenty-first century is recognized widely as extremely successful; however, has the club underachieved and suffered from a loss of footballing identity in recent years?

Generally, as football fans, there is a popular tendency to identify football clubs and players with particular traits and characteristics. In a manner of speaking, it is part of an odd process of assigning teams and their players parts in a play and turning the whole sport into a kind of pantomime. This is largely perpetuated by the media and the more neutral watchers of the game, of course; Liverpool are considered the sleeping giant edging closer to consciousness, Manchester City the rich upstarts, and Aston Villa the ones that have been slowly and quite horrifically sleepwalking toward a cliff edge. To think of these clubs in this manner is to make the Premier League a tad more dramatic; generally, it means more to most that the back-from-the-dead, plucky underdog is currently challenging for the title than to just state that Leicester City are doing it. These senses of identities, while perhaps not universally accepted (naturally fans hate their club to be portrayed badly) and made slightly in jest, are compounded, however, by very real footballing identities that exist at the heart of each club.

At Southampton there is a real dedication to maintaining the link between the first team and academy; it is a value that exists right at the heart of the club. Generally, it is the trait that is most associated with the club, likewise with Arsenal, who are associated with passing football and financial restraint. Now, these are not always necessarily true to reality – Arsenal have been known to spend recently, and Southampton are now less reliant on their academy – but they form the basis of the club’s footballing activity at board level. By this I mean the managers appointed, the type of player that is signed, the style of football that is promoted and played. While you can look at most clubs and discern some kind of strategy or philosophy in regards to signings (naturally, this is more difficult at clubs with fewer resources), there are a select few who appear a bit more scattergun in their approach. A very prevalent example at the current moment is Chelsea. Now the Chelsea of the twenty-first century are world-famous for their success – for the most part through the legacy of José Mourinho’s first stint at the club, where he built a side of pace and power, one that was equally adept at defending as it was attacking. Mourinho’s side was at odds with what had been established in the near past; the late 90s teams of Ruud Gullit and Gianluca Vialli were more creative, more focused around playing the game in a progressive, passing-based manner. However, years down the line, the Chelsea of the modern day appears somewhat stuck between the two. Mourinho’s second stint at the club, while successful in a dominating 2014/15 Premier League campaign, crashed and burned, and saw not only his dismissal, but also the club sitting unimpressively in the bottom half of the table.

From the ashes of the club’s torrid season so far, rumours and speculation have been aplenty in narrowing down Chelsea’s next full-time manager after interim boss Guus Hiddink. What stands out in these rumours is the sheer contrast between each potential managerial appointment, from the intense attacking football of Jorge Sampaoli, to the rather more conservative Diego Simeone. This is also evident in the contrast of experience, with Hiddink supposedly in line to stay on, while assistant manager Steve Holland could also potentially be given his first managerial job. This contrast is, however, by no means new. While it is difficult to discern exactly what Roman Abramovic wants at the club, there is a general acceptance and expectation that a Chelsea manager would have to have his team playing progressive, attacking football, while promoting young players from the lucrative Chelsea academy, and, of course, win trophies. Mourinho was the most recent manager tasked to do this. The long-term solution was talked up much in the press, but to anyone who knows the man, it should have been evident from the start that a manager who has never done long term, has never done particularly progressive football, was not going to live up to this. Likewise, much of the team that Mourinho inherited consisted of players more orientated towards the style of football that Abramovic supposedly wants; the likes of Juan Mata and Kevin De Bruyne, while let go by the manager, brought up the notion of square pegs in round holes. Before the infamous Champions League win of 2012, Andre Villas Boas was supposedly tasked with building such a team; with his sacking, the club fell back on tried and tested tactics of soaking up pressure and counter-attacking football. The same happened, in a sense, with Mourinho’s second stint in charge; following a demoralising 5-3 defeat to Tottenham in January 2015, the club again fell back upon what it knew.

While the tried and tested philosophy of Chelsea over the last decade has certainly been successful, gaping holes are beginning to form. These holes take the shape of Didier Drogba, Michael Ballack, Frank Lampard, Petr Cech – all the big characters who are no longer present at the club – soon potentially also to be joined by perhaps the biggest of them all, John Terry. The backs to wall 2012 Champions League win was only possible due to having gutsy, determined leaders in the team. Looking at the current Chelsea side, it is difficult to pick out the next captain, let alone the next group of leaders.

With the sacking of Mourinho and John Terry’s imminent departure, it is fair to say that an end of an era has come about for Chelsea Football Club. The club appears at the moment to be rudderless, and perhaps rather than going for the next big name manager in football, the club should be looking at either resetting their expectations, or pinning down a coherent philosophy and structure that a suitable manager can be chosen for.

 

 

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