Normally at this time of the week, I would be analysing five major pieces of news the world of the Blues from the past week, but something was seriously highlighted to me after Chelsea’s 2-0 defeat to Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium on Saturday.
It’s the overlining issue that strings together all of the problems going on at Stamford Bridge at the moment and as a supporter, I’ve struggled to feel completely satisfied or confident watching the Blues, particularly in high-profile matches ever since the day that John Terry lifted his and Chelsea’s fifth and most recent Premier League title.
With Petr Cech recently announcing that he will be retiring at the end of this season, watching Terry and Frank Lampard settling in fast to high-level coaching roles in the Sky Bet Championship, where the latter has just signed his former England and Blues teammate, Ashley Cole, and with Didier Drogba becoming the very hands-on owner of Phoenix Rising, it begs the question, who in Chelsea’s squad forms that spine, that core of serial winners with the world-class talent and passion that goes with becoming a club legend. In short, I’m struggling to answer that. The old guard has long gone and there does not seem to be an immediate replacement to the nucleus of players that turned the Blues into a global powerhouse soon after Roman Abramovich took ownership of the club in 2003.
The immediate candidate to suit such incredibly tough criteria is current club captain, Gary Cahill. However, the main issue with the 33-year-old is that his impending exit from Stamford Bridge seems to be more of an inevitability rather than a possibility. He hasn’t featured in a matchday squad since November’s 4-0 victory over PAOK Salonika in the Europa League, the competition where Cahill has made four of his seven appearances this season. Current manager Maurizio Sarri has admitted that he does not want to include Cahill whilst he’s deciding where his future lays and that should he leave, the Italian would not be in a rush to replace him with a new signing, instead, turning to 18-year-old prodigy and Wales international, Ethan Ampadu. Regardless of it Cahill leaves in January or not, it almost seems certain that this is the final of his seven seasons with the club.
With Cahill out of the equation, who else springs to mind?
The first name on my mind is the man who has captained the side during the vast majority of this season, Cesar Azpilicueta. A passionate player whose versatility and consistency has been crucial to the success that Chelsea have achieved in the past couple of years.
Then it comes down to Eden Hazard, a man whose future is speculated as often as that of the United Kingdom at the moment. Captain of the Belgian national side and the Blues’ star asset, consistency has always been a burden of his, but on his day, he can be untouchable.
There are other players at Chelsea either have longevity or quality, but fail to thrive with both at their disposal. Across his two spells with the Blues, David Luiz has played over 200 times for the club, having won a lot of trophies with the Blues, including the Champions League, Europa League and Premier League, but whilst he is a cult hero at the club, it would be tough to ever rely on him as a dependable character.
N’Golo Kante, one of the best holding midfielders in world football, has spent two-and-a-half seasons with the club, having won two domestic trophies in as many full campaigns. Under Sarri this season, he has been deployed in a very new role for him, as a box-to-box midfielder with a focus on providing creativity and goals from midfield, something he hasn’t excelled at, but a challenge Kante has not shied away from. As fantastic a player as he is, Kante has never conducted himself as a leader, just a world-class footballer that you can struggle to dislike just based purely on his humble demeanour.
Finally, there are wingers Pedro and Willian, who have both spent several years in the capital and are now two of the longest servants in Sarri’s side. But they’ve both also lacked to show their capabilities for long periods of time, Pedro is in a good vein of form this season, one of his best in a Blues shirt, but a bouncy ball would best represent how quickly the two wide men can lose their touch.
Looking at these six players, you struggle to see how any form of spine or group of players that you could turn to that would get Chelsea back on track could be created from the most likely sources, especially with three of him having less than two years left on their current contracts and with Hazard’s desire to play for Real Madrid following his every move.
Sarri seems to be attempting to play his ‘Sarri-ball’ brand of attacking football in a 4-3-3 system that made Napoli a joy to watch for three seasons under his guidance. The problem is, he simply lacks the personnel to do it.
Full-backs Azpilicueta and Marcos Alonso have struggled to reach the levels that they have been performing at under Antonio Conte, David Luiz would seem better-suited to a three-man defence, although he has been one of Chelsea’s better players this season.
Kante is known for being a ball-winner and not a goalscorer and you can’t help but feel that maybe this system is not designed for his true qualities. Mateo Kovacic has failed to chip in with many attacking contributions, unlike Kante has shown in patches, leaving Chelsea with even fewer goals from midfield, whilst Ross Barkley’s fluctuating form and Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s injury issues leave Sarri a bit stuck.
Up-front, Alvaro Morata’s and Olivier Giroud’s lack of goals, combined with Morata’s lack of confidence and apparent desire to leave the club has left Sarri with almost no choice but to play Hazard as a striker, another experiment which has only proved to be successful as often as it has backfired. ‘Square pegs in round holes’ springs to mind.
When the former Napoli manager arrived prior to the start of this season, he bought with him one of his key reference points, Jorginho, the deep-lying Regista who is supposed to be the real orchestrator behind Sarri’s methods of thinking and whilst the club did well to back him, Jorginho has also seen his form take a yo-yo effect and the pace of the English game combined with Chelsea’s reliance on him has appeared to overwhelm him at times.
Because Sarri knows how he wants his team to play, he shows a reluctance to change his philosophies, which as it stands, will come back to haunt him. His side really can’t score at the minute, five goals in their past seven matches against Premier League sides in all competitions has proved that. Something has to change.
Sarri’s predecessor Conte saw that sometimes, you have to adapt your ways in order to be successful. Midway through his sixth league game in charge of Chelsea, 3-0 down away at Arsenal (can you see where I’m going with this?), Conte changed to a new formation and whilst the score remained the same, the mentality changed. He publicly criticised his players in that post-match press conference, just like Sarri did on Saturday, and what happened after that was simply extraordinary. A 13-match winning run kick-started a revolution which led to comfortably winning the Premier League title for the fifth time, only the second club to achieve such a feat. So many clubs across England switched to emulate their 3-4-2-1 formation and they simply walked the top-flight immediately after Conte changed his ways in his debut season in England.
Where it went wrong for Conte eventually largely stems down to his treatment and sale of Diego Costa to Atletico Madrid, a move which lost several members of his dressing room and on-the-pitch, they had lost the attacking tenacity they once had. The absence of Costa’s sheer class, combined with a squad that was not big enough or talented enough to challenge for the league title and compete in the Champions League, as well as Terry’s departure ultimately allowed whoever played Chelsea to suss them out quite easily, and whilst they still won the FA Cup, their inability to retain qualification for the Champions League ultimately cost him his job.
The only positive solution out of Sarri’s current predicament is by being open to changing to a system that actually suits his squad’s top qualities. Around half of his first-team are playing in unnatural positions that are not suited to them and prevent them from playing at their best frequently. The likes of Azpilicueta, Hazard and Kante lead Chelsea to the league title two seasons ago by playing at their best, regularly, in a mould suited to them, whilst the leadership of Terry, Cahill and others allowed them to combine their playing qualities with the necessary mental strength required to be successful. Sarri at the minute lacks ideas and he lacks leaders. When he accepts change, the mentality of his team will soon follow.