Premier League 2018-19: How the transfer ban could result in an extended period of mediocrity For Chelsea
Last month, FIFA imposed a two window transfer ban on Chelsea Football Club for the improper transfer signing and usage of underage players. While most expected an appeal from the club and subsequent freezing of the ban until the appeal process concluded, FIFA surprisingly rejected the club’s request and ultimately upheld the ban to start this summer.
FIFA’s announcement didn’t cause too much concern initially because of the expected suspension, however its confirmation could prove a fatal blow in turning a few underperforming years at Chelsea into an extended period of subpar results.
The pejoratively named “Mourinho season” of 2015/16 started this substandard era. Jose Mourinho got the sack in December and Chelsea finished 10th, not qualifying for any European club competition for the first time in two decades.
Antonio Conte succeeded the Portuguese manager at the beginning of the next year and went on to win the Premier League in his first season and the FA Cup in his second and final campaign, qualifying for the Champions League and Europa League respectively.
But a fractious relationship with players and the board festered for two years and Conte lost his job after only two years. Fellow Italian Maurizio Sarri followed his compatriot and took charge on the touchline to begin the 2018/19 season.
Currently in his first season at Chelsea, the worst case scenario is a top 6 finish, still a Europa League spot, while top 4 is possible but highly unlikely. Also, Sarri has the team in the quarterfinals of this year’s Europa League with a good chance at winning it.
So how can a team that’s won trophies each of the past two years and could conceivably win this year’s Europa League, therefore qualifying for the Champions League, be slipping out of super club status and becoming an also-ran?
Simply because all is not well at Chelsea. Constant unrest among the team and supporters, fans chanting “F*** Sarriball” at home, supporters clapping Jorginho’s subbing off, and the infamous Kepa non-substitution during the Carabao Cup Final are just some signs pointing to major problems.
Pile on top of that or arguably because of horrific performances on the road including this past weekend’s 2-0 loss to Everton and a previous 4-0 shellacking when visiting Bournemouth, Chelsea aren’t stable right now.
Several times this year, it seemed as if Sarri would pay for these problems with his job, but somehow he hasn’t. Yet.
The lone bright spot of the year has been Eden Hazard as the Belgian wizard has single handedly kept the Blues in contention for a top 4 spot. Had he played in Europe, surely he would’ve padded his stats even more.
After this year though, Hazard will undoubtedly take his services abroad to Spain to link up with his idol and newly appointed Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane, something he’s hinted at for quite a while.
Good players come and go, but it’s a huge problem for Chelsea they won’t be able to replace him because of the transfer ban. At first, the transfer ban didn’t pose such a huge conundrum with Zidane not yet at Madrid. Hazard could’ve possibly stayed, but even if he hadn’t, the transfer ban would’ve been pushed back. However now, neither of those scenarios seem likely.
The club has tons of players out on loan, but Tammy Abraham, Michy Batshuayi, Alvaro Morata, Christian Pulisic and co. aren’t going to fill Hazard’s shoes that quickly or easily.
Abramovich has tolerated the unrest and lack of results this year as he seems disinterested, possibly because he can’t enter the country legally to work having had his visa application denied last year. So, maybe Sarri will keep his job for next year by default.
But will results and club atmosphere improve? The best player, Hazard, won’t be there. Olivier Giroud, the most “consistent” forward for the Blues this year, already hinted at leaving to seek regular first team football. And Sarri won’t be able to bring in any players who he thinks can play Sarriball, so it’s hard to imagine the team improving.
If Sarri does get fired, a new manager won’t be to implement his vision of the squad for a full year. Stepping back for a moment though, what manager would even want to come to Chelsea for a year in purgatory while also fearing the wrath of trigger happy owner Roman Abramovich and not having Champions League football?
Not exactly an ideal situation to persuade a top class manager or up an comer to take on.
Furthermore, players and managers won’t skip over SW6 only due to a lack of Champions League participation, Chelsea has and might continue to miss out on a ton of revenue from the Champions League, severely hampering their chances of competing financially for signatures.
What used to be a preferred destination for players and managers in both England and Europe is quickly falling out of the upper echelons.
Now, this isn’t supposed to be doom and gloom or panic for Chelsea fans, but more a warning of a possible future on the horizon. The one saving grace for Sarri and the club is winning the Europa League this year because doing so would automatically qualify them for next year’s Champions League.
Chelsea don’t look like a team that will make a late surge domestically to sneak into the top 4, but let’s assume for a moment they do get into next year’s Champions League, most likely through winning the Europa League.
If the turmoil continues next year without new signings and Sarri still at the helm, or a new manager in charge, they also probably won’t finish in the top 4 for a third year in a row. So, it would almost benefit the club more to come third in the group and drop into the Europa League, win that again and qualify for the following year’s UCL. Rinse and repeat.
Two of the last three years, Chelsea missed out on the Champions League and it looks likely to become three out of four after this year. And with a transfer ban for the next two windows, it could very easily become four out of 5, especially if the best player leaves, the owner is far afield, and the manager unrest and merry go round continues.
This FIFA imposed transfer ban could absolutely cripple a team already in decline.
But what can Chelsea do to avoid this ominous future?
The first thing is the team needs to hire a director of football or technical director. The previous one, Michael Emenalo, oversaw the greatest triumph in Chelsea history, the 2012 Champions League victory as well as the 2013 Europa League win. In addition, they won the Premier League twice, FA Cup once, and League Cup once with the Nigerian running the front office.
Unfortunately for Chelsea, he left almost 18 months ago and the front office has since mishandled one situation after another.
They botched Thibaut Courtois’s transfer to Madrid, only getting £35 million after he held out and did not report to preseason training. They missed the opportunity to sell Eden Hazard for a world record fee after the World Cup, which they could’ve in turn reinvested in new players. They also spent wildly on Alvaro Morata, who did come in during the Emenalo era, but at the very end, and is already gone on loan back to Italy.
Chelsea have made poor decisions without a technical director over the past year and a half so the appointment of a new one should be priority number one in this crucial time.
And with a clear direction for the future under a new technical director, will the club be more lenient with managers as they have with Sarri this year? Sarri may stay for next year, but only as a place holder. With not many options out on the market right now, a sense of security and extended leash might help persuade a manager to take over at Stamford Bridge.
Will Abramovich sell? If he can’t enter the country and has loss interest in owning the club, it probably will be best for all parties.
On the field, not being able to sign new players means the club will need to trust some of the younger talents, such as Ruben Loftus Cheek and Callum Hudson Odoi. In their few chances as squad players this year, both have impressed and should see more regular time especially if Hazard and others leave.
This would be the perfect opportunity. If they can hack it in the Premier League for a full season, great. If they can’t, Chelsea know exactly what positions to focus on once the ban is lifted.
Recalling loanees is also possible and will give them the same opportunity as Loftus Cheek and Hudson Odoi, but it won’t turn Chelsea into title contenders. They’re out on lone for a reason, while Loftus Cheek and Hudson Odoi are squad players.
The immediate future looks a little bleak for Chelsea and while a transfer ban does not inherently mean the club will suffer, as Real Madrid and Barcelona both had transfer bans imposed on them but still went on to win trophies in Europe and Spain respectively in the aftermath, Chelsea isn’t either of the Spanish giants.
Jose Mourinho arrived in west London in 2004 and ushered in a decade of unprecedented success for Chelsea. When he got fired in the December 2015, it seemed like just another firing in the Chelsea manager history books.
However, the “Mourinho Season” was just the beginning of a precipitous downturn. And with the transfer ban looming, Chelsea could be facing a regression that no one expected. The club can certainly nip it in the bud with the right technical director and long term plan, but the relegation from super club to has-been club is right around the corner.
The Special One kicked off what became the greatest decade in Chelsea history. Ironically enough, he also initiated what could become a decade of mediocrity.Published 19 Mar 2019, 16:55 IST