Barely 72 hours after an honourable defeat to Manchester City in the Carabao (League) Cup Final at Wembley Chelsea might have been forgiven, although perhaps not by owner Roman Abramovich, for a less-energetic, nervier performance against London and top four rivals, Tottenham Hotspur. As it transpired, Sarri-ball lives to fight another day.
Although a chance for silverware the City game amounted to little more than a free hit for Chelsea, with few expectations of an against-the-odds victory against Pep Guardiola’s side chasing an unprecedented quadruple. Anything of course can occur in a one-off game and despite losing the final on a penalty shootout, undoubtedly the least palatable way to do so, Chelsea and in particular Maurizio Sarri will feel that some of their battered pride has been restored after taking the reigning Premier League champions to 120 minutes, and beyond.
Last night’s fixture emphasized why both sides have this season been so maddeningly erratic. Just as each side have threatened at different times of the season to mount a credible title challenge, the wheels inexplicably come off. Prior to Saturday’s damaging league defeat at Turf Moor Tottenham were the third wheel in Liverpool’s and Manchester City’s game of Hokey Cokey; last night’s reversal at Stamford Bridge all but confirmed the title will once more reside in the north-west of England. There was though an overwhelming feeling during and after the game, one that failed to live up to expectation and prediction, just how far the chasing pack have fallen behind the top two.
With all their wealth of attacking midfield intent – Pedro, Willian, Hazard – Chelsea remain far less than the sum of their parts. The four strikers at the Blues’ disposal – Oliver Giroud, Michy Batshuayi, Tammy Abraham, and Gonzalo Higuain represent what looks to be a recruitment afterthought. (It is assumed that Alvaro Morata, on loan at Atletico Madrid, will never play for Chelsea again). Frenchman Giroud has never been sufficiently trusted to be given an extended, uninterrupted run of games, with the mercurial Batshuayi repeated farmed out on loan – currently so at Crystal Palace. The same can be said of Abraham, so prolific in the Championship with first Bristol City and now Aston Villa, either side of a chastening but character-building season at then Premier League side Swansea City. On loan from Juventus Higuain is the wrong side of 30 and for me a flat-track bully; fine against cannon-fodder like Huddersfield and Fulham, but Chelsea should be able to put such teams to the sword without relying on the Argentine.
Pedro’s 57th minute strike and an inexplicable OG from Kieran Trippier put a misleading gloss on the scoreline, although for all Tottenham’s huffing and puffing they deserved little from what was another turgid display. Again shorn of Dele Alli’s vigour and attacking threat Spurs looked one paced with too many high-achievers having another off-night. Chelsea were though little better themselves; the result saying more about Tottenham’s problems than their own Italian renaissance.
Chelsea’s midfield options are myriad but drilling down into its sheer quality, one soon begins to realize that quantity is once more no substitute for quality. Croat Mateo Kovacic spent most of the game giving the ball away; his one memorable shot disappearing high into the crowd. As with Juventus, Higuain’s paymaster, it is hard to believe that the Real Madrid would allow Kovacic to be loaned out if they foresaw him being an integral part of their future plans. Jorginho, another player who has failed to convince since following Sarri from Napoli, when not presenting the ball to the opposition specializes in passing sideways and backwards, stultifying any chance of quicksilver attacking favoured by Chelsea’s two best players, Willian and Hazard. Even N’Golo Kante, usually a peerless, metronomic presence in front of the back four is being asked by Sarri to at times play in an alien, more advanced role. Last night’s midfield trio of Kante, Jorginho, and Kovacic, playing behind Pedro, Hazard, and Higuain, surely represented one of the least inventive central selections during the Abramovich era.
It was interesting last night to witness the abuse received by Chelsea full-back Marcos Alonso from his own supporters. After what was an unremarkable stint at Bolton Wanderers the Spaniard eventually pitched up in West London, to no little surprise to those who watched him play at the Reebok and during a loan stint at Sunderland. His form in recent seasons has though seen sizeable goal and assist contributions from left back, something that now seems to have deserted the 28-year old’s game. His responsibility for a road death many years ago in his native Spain makes him an easy target for abuse that is usually directed from the opposition supporters. The fact that Alonso is now being singled-out as a scapegoat for the team’s recent failings by many of Chelsea’s fans deflects justified criticism away from Sarri, but more in particular the club’s repeated failures in recruitment and retention.
A potted history of Chelsea’s ‘hiring and firing’ of players makes grim reading. Utter impatience saw Mo Salah, Kevin de Buyne, Andre Schurrle, and Romelu Lukaku moved on before their considerable abilities were able to come to the fore. Signing Danny Drinkwater from Leicester City, for £30 million, must represent one of the greatest transfer gaffes of all time, although there are many examples that run the 28-year old’s purchase close. In more recent times Chelsea have still to learn from their mistakes. Instead of seeking out a much needed, world class striker they instead blow over £50 million on American Christian Pulisic, who wasn’t even first choice at Borussia Dortmund. It is decision-making like this that will drive out of the club two homegrown stars otherwise struggling to get game-time – Callum Hudson-Odoi, a target of Bayern Munich, and Ruben Loftus-Cheek.
It is indeed strange that Chelsea, for all their poor recruitment choices, revolving door-approach to management, and current unbalanced squad are nevertheless expected to be achieving far more than they actually are. It is also with no little irony that the tone of this article is such even after what was a much needed, and unexpected victory over an otherwise superior opponent. The Blues’ will though continue to frustrate their own fans and be disliked by rival supporters’ whilst a restless, impulsive nature endures through a club that has been eclipsed in recruitment, ethos, and patience by both Liverpool and Manchester City.