Continuing on in my little series of articles looking at the teams placed near the Arsenal last season, next up is Chelsea. With the Blues finishing in 6th place last year perhaps I’m stretching the definition of “near the Arsenal”, but I suppose I did do Liverpool who were down at lowly 8th.
Anyway, to be fair to Chelsea such a season could be put down to a one-off. There was managerial disruption which while generally the rule rather than the exception when we’re talking about Chelsea, the fracas did seem to have a serious detrimental impact on their team performances. The Portuguese tactician was seemingly brought in to renew Chelsea’s team, seeking to phase out the old guard and transition in some new, younger talent.
Such a job is tricky at any club, but at Chelsea it is very difficult indeed: it is alleged that a cabal of senior players (Cole, Terry, Lampard and Drogba) have the ear of the owner. When Villas-Boas tried to phase some of those players out – justifiably so, given performances, age and his own mandate to renew the side – a player revolt managed to undermine the manager and effectively secure his sacking.
This dynamic is really important to understand Chelsea as Arsenal’s competitor this season. They’ve apparently secured managerial stability with the securing of Champions League winning caretaker Di Matteo, but the owner’s concern as to the Italian’s pedigree was made clear by a decision to hand him a mere two year contract after spending substantial time searching for another man. Hardly the basis for Di Matteo to feel confident in his ability to revitalise Chelsea’s team, and the transfer dealings that were either being negotiated or even sealed during the period without a manager at the helm suggests Chelsea’s gaffer may not have complete control.
From that then, I suspect that Chelsea this year might be somewhat hamstrung by Abramovich’s continued meddling in first team affairs, along with a manager who is inexperienced at the top level. Long term, Chelsea need to move on some of the declining senior members of the squad but Di Matteo doesn’t seem to have enough job security to really care about the long term picture. Bad for Chelsea, but good for Arsenal.
In terms of signings, Chelsea have been very busy. Young winger Kevin De Bruyne has been loaned out, while fellow Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois will continue on loan at Atletico Madrid for a second season. Big money arrival Eden Hazard certainly got tongues wagging given the size of the fee and his stellar reputation after lighting up Ligue 1 in recent years.
Attacking midfielder/wide player Marin arrived early in the summer, while Brazilian Oscar was announced more recently. Certainly, Chelsea have splashed the cash but what is interesting is the positions they play: all are exciting, attacking talents. One or two signings in this area may have been justified given Malouda’s decline in recent seasons and the release of Kalou, but certain other areas of the squad are in much greater need of new faces.
One of those is the defence. Right back Bosingwa was released and despite not always convincing, he was their only genuine rightback. Ivanovic has often played there and done well, but moving the Serbian simply creates problems at centreback. Certainly Luiz has improved considerably but John Terry is looking less and less like the player who was imperious in partnership with Ricardo Carvalho under Mourinho.
Paulo Ferreira is inadequate and has been for quite some time, so really Chelsea currently look like going into the season at least without a first choice right back and an able deputy there too. If they put Ivanovic there, they still need a deputy and would also probably need a fourth centreback too. Left back looks OK, with Cole and the youngster Bertrand, but Chelsea’s defence looks somewhat under-equipped for a side who are looking to show that sixth place last season was a one-off.
Further forward, Chelsea’s squad is absolutely packed with numbers. There’s a plethora of attacking/playmaking midfielders, and their new signings have ensured that they now have quality on the flanks. Yet a midfield cannot be made of simply artisans, and Chelsea look lopsided in this respect. There’s Mikel who does OK but hasn’t seemed to command complete confidence from any Chelsea manager since he arrived, while young Romeu seemingly hasn’t done enough to earn a place yet.
Then, of course, there is the centre forward. Club talisman Drogba has left, leaving Torres to lead the line for the season. The Spaniard has looked much better in the latter half of last season, but given that he’s not yet rediscovered the form that arguably marked him out as one of the best strikers in the world at Liverpool, having him as the sole centre forward option seems foolish. After Torres, there is Belgian Lukaku who has barely featured and seems more likely to head out on loan.
For me then, there are question marks over Chelsea’s squad at both ends. The defence seems ramshackle, the holding options don’t convince and the centre forwards don’t inspire confidence. They have a wealth of options in terms of central midfield and on the flanks, but given the numbers there, you have to wonder how team spirit will be with big names being consistently overlooked. Looking at their options, I cannot fathom how Lampard will start consistently if the team is decided by merit, so that will certainly be one area for potential fireworks.
Of course, with Chelsea spending so much money and the season still three weeks away, it is possible that these weaknesses will be rectified in due course. The names being bandied around though do not suggest that: how can Chelsea feasibly need to sign Brazilian attacker Willian, who numerous quotes seem to attribute them with a big-money interest in. They do seem to be looking at Spaniard Azpilicueta who would be an excellent addition at right back, but they do seem to be leaving it late to fill a crucial, starting role in the team.
It all smacks of a transfer policy being run by an indulged billionaire, running Chelsea in the manner of a fourteen year old playing Football Manager.
The squad limit is something to keep an eye on. While the unlimited U21s just keeps them in good nick for this season, next year they will likely have issues with the likes of Romeu, Hazard and some others needing to be registered. That issue could be resolved with departures of the likes of Malouda, Benayoun and co, but for this season Chelsea’s wage bill is going to be phenomenally high… FFP anyone?
For me then, despite Chelsea’s big money additions, I’m not actually too worried about them this season. They’ve got a lot of ground to make up in the league, and the squad seems unbalanced. The potential for squad fireworks and managerial upheaval seems likely, and no doubt the likes of Terry and Lampard will leaning on Di Matteo to keep them in the side.
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