Just when things were coming apart at the seams, Chelsea are in another Wembley final, and have added one of the world’s best strikers to their squad. No other club in English football oscillates so wildly between triumph and disaster. Few across Europe indulge in such frequent retail therapy.
Last week, Maurizio Sarri, after defeat by Arsenal, was talking of how “we still seem to lack sufficient motivation, being mentally solid and determination”, and singled out Eden Hazard for criticism in the build-up to the League Cup semi-final with Tottenham. By 10pm on Thursday night, with Madness’ ‘One Step Beyond’ blaring out, all was well with the world at Stamford Bridge, a place where it is best to live for now rather than tomorrow.
The pace of change can be dizzying, the lows often crashing, but amid the chaos, Chelsea have been the most successful club in English football, their three titles equalling Manchester City’s haul, and with the Champions League in 2012 and the Europa League a year later to add into the mix with three FA Cups and a League Cup.
If City and Liverpool seem out of reach in this season’s Premier League, then Chelsea cannot be dismissed for too long.
The club has shown startling powers of reinvention and has constantly ripped up the accepted manual.
As others work on projects, devise root and branch reform, Chelsea continue to deliver success while flying by the seat of their pants.
Among the continent’s elite, the January transfer window, a market for short-termism and papering over the cracks, is usually avoided, but Gonzalo Higuain, who may well make his debut against Sheffield Wednesday on Sunday evening is the latest in a long line of quick fixes. The Argentinian is the next answer to the striking problem that has gone unsolved since Antonio Conte fell out with Diego Costa halfway through a title-winning season.
Against Tottenham in Thursday’s semi, Olivier Giroud, last January’s solution to that problem, missed a golden chance for a header that would have ruled out the need for penalties. Alvaro Morata, cost £60m but his loan to Atletico Madrid – with a view to a permanent deal – is the end of the line for him.
During the Roman Abramovich era, Chelsea has been a striker’s graveyard, from the days of Matej Kezman and Adrian Mutu, right through to Andriy Shevchenko, and onwards to Fernando Torres, who once seemed the biggest bust of all but cost £10m less than Morata.
The younger Spaniard’s performances levels have resembled his predecessor, in that the penalty box has become a domain in which his nerve fails him. A move to West London just hasn’t worked out for him, a harrowing time no doubt in his career, but perhaps some time in the future, he might comfort himself that few clubs in football history have chewed up and spat out top talent like Chelsea.
Kevin de Bruyne, Mohamed Salah and Romelu Lukaku are the most notable members of a not particularly select club, and aside from the initial wash of rejection, their careers can hardly have said to have suffered for the Chelsea experience.
There have been other victims, too, others less fortunate, and particularly from the club’s youth set-up. They might have been knocked out of this season’s FA Youth Cup by Manchester United, but had won six of the last seven renewals and been untouchable at representative level. And yet, still the wait goes on for a Chelsea youth player to properly succeed John Terry, whose debut came in 1998, as a first-team regular.
Andreas Christensen had seemed likely to be that young man, only to lose his place in the latter days of Antonio Conte, and last played a Premier League match on December 5 in a 2-1 loss at Wolves. At Arsenal, having seen another chance to make a difference slide by when Sarri made his third sub, the Danish sloped off to the dressing room with 15 minutes still to play. “I don’t know the reason, but he’s very nervous,” said Sarri. “He had to go to the toilet, so I don’t know what to say.”
Christensen usually suffers from stomach ache on match days, as his manager explained. The state of Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s nervous system and its effect on his alimentary canal is less well known, but a player Gareth Southgate has championed has started just one Premier League match all season and lost his England place.
If Sarri wishes to convince Callum Hudson-Odoi, the Under-17 World Cup winner, that Chelsea is the place for him, the Italian has a funny way of showing it. Since Bayern Munich’s heavy interest in him went over-ground, the 18-year-old has been given a little more of a spin, but got just 10 minutes in a losing cause at Arsenal and sat on the bench for the duration of the second Spurs semi-final. The likes of Pedro and Willian, both players on the downward slope, continue to play ahead of him.
Sarri, though, can hardly be blamed for not taking the long view. Every defeat at Chelsea is a step closer to an abyss that has swallowed up nine previous “permanent” managers, not including two caretaker spells from Guus Hiddink and one from Rafa Benitez. A Chelsea manager is asked to deliver three things all at once: almost instantaneous success, a style of play that pleases Abramovich, and the deliverance of the club’s the youth products into the first-team.
And all while recruitment is in the hands of Marina Granovskaia, the Abramovich aide who now runs the back office. While Sarri has affected disinterest in transfers, that Granovskaia has signed Jorginho and now Higuain for him suggests he is still in credit. That may not last: both Antonio Conte and Jose Mourinho did little to hide their disgust at some of the players they had been asked to work with.
It is an unworkable equation, unsustainable for any length of time, and a Chelsea manager is in danger of going the way of Luiz Felipe Scolari, a World Cup winner no less, or Andre Villas-Boas, the brightest young thing in coaching when he came back to the club he had served as Jose Mourinho’s chief scout.
Neither made it past early March of their first season, and as Chelsea wobbled in recent weeks, Sarri had appeared headed for a similar fate.
His reliance on Jorginho, who has been accused of floating like a butterfly and stinging like one, has been targeted by critics and opponents, though there was delicious irony in seeing the Brazilian calmly passing his shootout penalty against Spurs into the net.
Meanwhile the relationship with Hazard has hardly been love and roses, the Belgian never hiding his dissatisfaction at having to play as a false nine in the absence of a decent striker.
The question of who might last longest of manager and star player has been asked, even when incorporating the expectation that Hazard is headed for Real Madrid in the summer, but that is the state of permanent revolution that Chelsea has existed in for almost 16 years.
Underpinning all the current intrigue lies the most burning question of all, that of how long might Abramovich himself linger, considering his visa issues and that pulling of the new Stamford Bridge building project last summer in an act of retribution against the British establishment. Should he choose to walk away, then Chelsea might have to live out a very different brand of chaos.
This one, for all its pecularities, has brought continued success.