The furore and meltdown surrounding a defeat for Chelsea is in some respects a measure of how far we have come over the last 15 years. But that in no way mitigates the dreadfulness of a 3-0 defeat at home to Bournemouth.
In truth, concern about Chelsea’s strength and ability to compete this season has been bubbling around for some months. Those of a glass half full disposition point to the fact that we are Champions; in the top four; FA Cup and Champions’ League and that in a freak season for Man City, funded by a nation state, it would always have been difficult to challenge for the Premier League title.
Many others recognise that something at Chelsea is not quite right. Antonio Conte, having fallen out with and expelled Diego Costa, has been complaining about a lack of support from the Board in terms of players in and out since the beginning of the season. There is an argument to be had that he might be right, given that the Board have a penchant for resting on their laurels after the club win the title and fail to improve the squad from a position of strength. We have seen this and a proclivity to get rid of failing or complaining managers many times before. No wonder much talk after the defeat to Bournemouth focused on whether or not the likable Italian’s days are numbered. After all, we have become conditioned to it.
One of the most disappointing things to see in the defeat to Bournemouth was the mental fragility of the Chelsea players being exposed. Heads dropped; there was a lack of fight or belief that the deficit could be turned round. Worryingly we have also seen this before: Roma away; Palace away; West Ham away and most recently Arsenal away in the Carabao Cup semi-final second leg all spring to mind.
I find it difficult to question the commitment and character of players who don the Blue shirt, but the suspicion lingers that they are somewhat lacking. A minimum requirement in terms of what supporters expect is that players show some fight and give 100% even in a losing cause. I recall much less talented Chelsea sides in the 1970’s; 1980’s and 1990’s having a go; believing that they could turn a game around even if it was a forlorn hope. They often failed but at least they tried.
Over and above all of the current arguments about the relative quality of the current squad and the success or otherwise of the club’s dealings in the transfer market; one issue stands out like the proverbial elephant in the room.
Chelsea’s success from 2003-2017 was built on a group of players who worked hard; played for each other; had grit and determination and above all bucket loads of character. Out of this grew a spine of Petr Cech; Ashley Cole; John Terry; Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba. Around this spine was added the muscle and tenacity of Branislav Ivanovic; John Mikel Obi; Michael Essien; Michael Ballack – strong characters all; leaders on the pitch and in the dressing room.
Either by natural evolution or by design, this spine and steely determination has been removed. By all accounts, this systematic deconstruction of Chelsea’s spine was Andre Villas-Boas’ project, conceived in the Ivory Towers of Stamford Bridge itself. Thankfully, the outstanding characters in the Chelsea squad proved more powerful than the Portuguese pip squeak with his ‘organagrams’ and like a football version of the ‘Wild Bunch’ the creaking bones and bloody mindedness of that old squad carried Chelsea over the line for a few more years.
But it has never been replaced.
Of course, there is a valid argument that it would be an impossible task to replace a squad that will probably go down as the greatest in Chelsea’s history. However, of the current squad who if any match up?
Courtois is no Petr Cech; Gary Cahill is no John Terry; there could never be a replacement for Frank Lampard and while Diego Costa may have proved an able replacement for Didier Drogba, he didn’t stay long enough for us to find out.
Where are the current fighters; the ones who you would want in the trenches with you?
I can’t really think of any that compare to their predecessors. Perhaps Cesar Azpilicueta, Andreas Christensen, David Luiz, possibly N’Golo Kante and maybe Willian? Beyond that there is no one who I believe has the sheer bloody mindedness, guts and determination to get us out of the shit when we find ourselves deep in it. Eden Hazard may have the skill, but clearly he can’t do it on his own and players like Hazard are the icing on a cake that is made from solid ingredients. If the current Chelsea squad was a cake it would be a soufflé.
Of all the talk of the club resting on its laurels by not strengthening the squad on the back of winning the Premier League in 2015 and 2017, perhaps the biggest crime has been to phase out the members of 2003-2013 squad and not to have found adequate replacements, in terms of character if not skill.
To be kind, perhaps this has been an impossible task but the efforts to do so over the last few years have been woeful. A more worrying thought though, if Chelsea can’t replace the irreplaceable then Chelsea supporters will be faced with the reality that maybe 2003-2017 was as good as it would ever get and going forward we’ll be faced with mediocrity. Mediocrity I can put up with, but spineless and characterless performances much less so.
Stamford Chidge presents the award winning Chelsea FanCast podcast which can be heard live every Monday at 19.00 at mixlr.com/chelsea-fancast/ or downloaded from Acast, ITunes, Soundcloud – Follow us on twitter @ChelseaFanCast