Chelsea look exhausted. Not fatigued or tired, but short of the enlivening energy that bright, successful football depends on. There were subplots to draw from Sunday’s defeat to Everton and there were individual criticisms to make, but the 2-0 loss seemed like a broader sort of failure; one characterised and instructed by that fundamental lack of vitality. There was no life to it.
So, two games, two awful results. Manchester City and Liverpool disappeared over the horizon long ago, but the teams chasing remain unreliable. Manchester United have enjoyed a surging run, but are now running short of momentum to ride. Arsenal are Arsenal, despite the new exterior. And Tottenham’s threadbare squad seems finally to be coming apart at the seams.
What a motivator that should have been. When Chelsea have nothing to play for, they still always have Spurs to spite. In the past, that’s been powerful enough to transcend whatever managerial difficulties have engulfed the club and yet now, with their fiercest rivals teetering, five points have been thrown away. Five points which would have placed them in third, which would have created the veneer of progress and provided a welcome jolt to local morale.
Failure can always be forgiven. Contemporary football’s instant gratification/immediate crisis culture may suggest otherwise, but – generally – losing or failing to win is alright if it can be ascribed to something palatable. Transition, perhaps, or some kind of growing pain. But that isn’t really the case with Chelsea. Maurizio Sarri clearly has problems, both with structure and personnel, and that helps to explain the texture of these performances. But it doesn’t wholly account for the tone: for that general sense that the aspiration has drained away.
Sarri is complicit in some of that. After all, he is the architect of the position in which these players find themselves. Being sixth in a six-horse race is a dispiriting situation and while the Europa League offers encouraging avenues, that’s a fairly dark place too. Of course they look uninspired. And of course he’s compounded that misery, with the shots he’s fired across his squad’s bows. The modern footballer doesn’t like to be criticised. Historically, the modern Chelsea player interprets any challenge to his ego as an act of war.
The reasons behind that comprise the best defence for Sarri: that he is operating within an unworkable situation, for an employer who has inadvertently encouraged players to view head-coaches as substitute teachers. It’s such an engrained belief that it’s essentially fact: when Chelsea start losing, the players kick their heels until somebody else takes the blame. The manager is sacked and replaced, the resulting reset creates an organic improvement, and the cycle begins again. It’s a simplification, of course, and one perpetuated by rival supporters’ desire to diminish Chelsea’s culture, but it’s still broadly accurate and the proposed cure always involves the same remedies. Chelsea need a director of football, their recruitment needs proper purpose, and they must start to mine proper value from their academy, which continues to boast a staggering depth of talent. Those are all arguments which have been made before and yet, fair and logical as they are, nothing at Chelsea ever seems to change. It’s sack and hire, buy and buy again; inefficiency squared.
History works against the club. The Roman Abramovich era has been a fabulous triumph in many ways and the same model now being disparaged is at the root of that success. Chelsea have never been afraid to burn themselves to the ground and start again and, at times over the last decade-and-a-half, that has probably been the smartest move. While purists bend their knee to assumed imperatives, like continuity and patience, Abramovich has been quick to recognise when something isn’t working and even quicker to replace it with something that might.
That’s a brave approach. An expensive one, too. The trouble increasingly seems to be, though, that it’s a blueprint for a different era: a time when being a billionaire was enough to dominate the game. In 2019 that’s no longer the case. Even someone of Abramovich’s means is no longer an apex predator; it’s a dispiriting realisation, but the idea that someone of his profile – an individual – could command the transfer market now seems rather quaint.
But beyond material wealth, Abramovich’s style of ownership is outmoded for a different reason. He’s never been media facing, he doesn’t give interviews, and so his aims and objectives have always been vague. From the outside though, he’s always appeared to operate with a narrow focus: he wants to buy good players, hire desirable coaches, and win trophies. Why he wants to do those things is a different question, one which prompts theories about his relationship with Vladimir Putin, but superficially he isn’t so different from the traditional benefactor. He isn’t quite the local businessman done good, Abramovich is not Jack Walker, but he represents an evolved form of that model: the buy-to-win, localised style which also now belongs to a different time.
Today, football clubs aren’t contained by the sport. For instance, Manchester City don’t just aspire to win the Premier League and the European Cup, they are intent on acquiring all sorts of capital across multiple continents. The aim, clearly, is to skew the competitive balance in a way which doesn’t just allow them to dominate the game, but to actually alter the nature of competition within it. That a strain of ambition which demands total engagement. To build the multiplying networks, to acquire the complementary properties, to plot something on the scale that Ferran Soriano is attempting; that’s the kind of growth which can’t be achieved simply by writing cheques and buying the odd midfielder.
Viewed from that perspective, Abramovich himself is part of the problem. Or, at least, the current version of him is. His wealth remains intact, but the issues surrounding his citizenship and the myriad problems that seems to have created are inhibiting his ability – or desire – to be the kind owner Chelsea need in order to remain a European superpower. It would be quite wrong to dismiss the abilities of their various boardrooms or to pretend that Marina Granovskaia is not a hugely influential and capable figure within the game. But the fact remains: in terms of the scale of their ambition, Chelsea are playing a different sport to clubs like Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain. Or even to Barcelona, whose altruistic reputation masks more imperalist aims.
Ideologically and morally, there’s nothing wrong with failing to follow that lead. In fact, more energy and time should be expending on restraining those clubs who seek those preposterous advantages, not on criticising those who don’t head down the same path. Nevertheless, to remain competitive – to retain the status that they’ve acquired over the last fifteen years – Chelsea cannot afford to suffer two-dimensional ownership. Without the benefit of the commercial opportunities enjoyed by Manchester United and Liverpool, privileges earned by historic success and sustained by truly global fanbases, remaining passive now would condemn Chelsea to become an Arsenal or a Tottenham. The kind of side, ultimately, who view losing a cup final on penalties as a relative success.
Form should always be traced back to micro factors. Those disappointing results against Wolves and Everton, and the 2018-19 season as a whole, should breed conversations about midfield selection, a lack of a fit, functioning goalscorer, and coaching performance. Clearly, those are the more pressing day-to-day concerns. But tenuous as it might seem, it’s still tempting to view this pervasive limpness – this sagging football – as an abstract consequence of a more general hopelessness and, more broadly, as a symptom of their operating procedure having reached the end of its lifespan.