After a disappointing but unsurprising exit from this season’s Champions League & FA Cup, football fans are left gawking at the omnishambles that has become Chelsea FC. “The Interim One” Guus Hiddink has since correctly stated that Chelsea are a team in transition. While this is indeed the end of an era, a new era should’ve already begun and this team should’ve “transitioned” 3 seasons ago, however the club’s hierarchy and coach fluffed it. Again.
At the start of the 2013-2014 season, Chelsea fans had every right to be optimistic or even excited. After the glory of the long-coveted Champions League victory in 2012, Chelsea had endured an unconvincing 2012-2013 season under the much-loved Roberto Di Matteo and much-maligned Rafa Benitez. The team struggled all season to cope with the void left by the departed talisman Didier Drogba and as John Terry and Frank Lampard finally began to show their age. Exiting the Champions League at the group stages was seen as an embarrassment uncompensated by a Europa League triumph in May 2013, however was just salvaged by finishing in that season’s top 4 despite stiff competition from Arsenal and Spurs. After doing what he was brought in to do, Benitez was out just in time for the second coming.
Jose Mourinho, the man who started it all, was back with a squad blessed with a mixture of youth, quality and experience. Chelsea fans believed the sky was the limit for this team, however from day one Mourinho wasn’t satisfied. It started with the isolating of Juan Mata, Chelsea’s Player of the Year for both of his seasons in the Premier League, who was moved on in favour of the undoubtedly talented but very temperamental Oscar. Next came the sale of Kevin De Bruyne, whom Mourinho seemed to think didn’t have the stomach nor the talent to cut it in the Premier League. De Bruyne has since been named Bundesliga Player of the Season, a remarkable achievement for a 23 year old non-Bayern Munich player, scoring 10 goals and setting up 20. This lead City to pay 55 million for him in summer 2015, for whom he already has 6 goals and 9 assists in just 19 appearances. Mourinho spent the rest of this season complaining about the lack of options up front, ignoring the fact that they had shipped out one of Europe’s hottest young talents, Romelu Lukaku, on loan to Everton. The Belgian has since scored 19 goals for the Toffees this season. In spite of this Chelsea enjoyed a passable season, finishing 3rd in a title race they had every opportunity to win. “Next season”, Mourinho said.
And, in fairness, he was right. Mourinho’s men flew into what turned out to be an unassailable lead playing some the best football I’ve ever seen a Chelsea team play. The purchases of Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas seemed to have provided the cutting edge that Chelsea so needed, complimented by the explosive talent of Eden Hazard. However, come 2015 and 5-3 hiding from Spurs, the team seemed to run out of puff. The alarm bells should already have been ringing for Mourinho as the team laboured through the second half of the season, winning by more than 1 goal in just 2 out of their 15 games between January and May as well as stumbling out of the Champions League after letting slip a favourable position against 10-men PSG. While the team did go on to win the league, it was seemingly down to the incompetence of their nearest rivals and without any of the gloss the early season style had promised.
The club seemed to ignore this dreary second half of the season and recruited poorly in summer 2015, failing to cover players who seemed just one poor performance away from a crisis in confidence. The season started badly and only got worse, combatted by Mourinho solely with claims that he was doing everything he could, the players still supported him and that decisions weren’t going their way. Believe what you will, the excuses just weren’t good enough and Mourinho was given the boot to the relief of many, leaving behind a squad devoid of any passion and who’s nerves were seemingly shot.
While it cannot be denied that Hiddink has at least restored a bit of confidence to a team barely crawling towards the end of the season, the sorry state of affairs that he’ll be leaving for Antonio Conte has been laid bare for all to see. Given the laughable title-defence that followed, it’s hard to envisage a future in which Mourinho’s 3rd Premier League triumph will be remembered as anything more than just a sticking plaster over a club in disarray. The scatter-gun recruitment policy mixed with the shameful treatment of its talented youngsters has highlighted a team devoid of a “next generation”. For years Chelsea have been held up as an example of a team with a strong spine, however this season has seen a host “star players” underperform on the pitch (Courtois, Ivanovic, Matic, Fabregas, Oscar, Hazard, Costa) while making comments off it that will leave Chelsea fans wondering where on earth their sense of pride is.
Only time will tell whether or not Conte is the right man to take Chelsea forward, there is no questioning that the task he faces is immense. While a poor season for any big club is inevitably followed by talk of “summer exoduses” or “mass clear-outs”, Conte will (and should) be expected to try and help the clubs talented individuals rediscover their mojo. As well as this, he would do well to see some produce from Chelsea’s tremendously talented and expensive academy which has won 4 out of the last 6 FA Youth Cups and recently reached this year’s final. As for ins and outs, Chelsea just need a more considered approach, evaluating the real potential of players before letting them go and not signing utterly baffling squad players – anyone remember Papy Djilobodji? Throw in an increasingly competitive Premier League and the ever-frustrating internal politics among Chelsea’s hierarchy, it remains to be seen whether Conte will be given the time he needs to see Chelsea back to where they’ve come to believe they belong.