The Roman Abramovich-era ha over the last fifteen years brought unimaginable success to Chelsea Football Club but with success comes expectation, impatience, and as demonstrated on innumerable occasions: the costliest of mistakes.
A self-made, Russian oligarch who prospered during the aftermath of Soviet disintegration and the economic free-for-all under the disastrous Boris Yeltsin presidency, Abramovich, similar to most overtly rich tycoons, didn’t get to where he is today without a cutthroat, ruthless business mien. Should though his foray into football club ownership have softened the edges of a man not known for spontaneous bursts of public verbosity?
Football is not like any other business sector, nor can a tried and tested modus operandi be seamlessly translated from the corporate world into the boardroom. Everyone is entitled to make mistakes, but to keep making the same ones and to be so unforgiving of the errors of others – if one tires of the mistakes of others, it is a good idea to stop making them yourself – creates a culture of fear and uncertainty. The mistakes at Stamford Bridge show no sign of slowing, nor do those with whom ultimate responsibility rests feel the need to justify a lack of on and off-field continuity.
For every Jose Mourinho(his first stint at Chelsea) there are the Andre Villas-Boas’ and Luiz Felipe Scolaris, managers either callow but seemingly the next big thing, or those with no previous managerial experience in Europe at club level. Chelsea were fortunate to have the Italians Maurizio Sarri and Antonio Conte but the positions of both were left untenable by unfair criticism and a lack of time to implement respective methodologies which despite each enjoying first season successes, drove two fine managers away from the club. In the case of the recently departed(to another club, not from this world) Sarri it seemed the affable chain-smoker would have walked over the Alps, a la Hannibal, to Turin for his next posting with Juventus, if it meant putting as much distance as possible between himself and West London.
Despite landing the Europa League trophy Rafa Benitez was never a popular choice with Chelsea fans with long, selective memories of the Champions’ League battles with the Spaniard’s Liverpool side. Whether the now former Newcastle United boss was hounded out or had it made clear to him that he would never be able to win over Chelsea’s notoriously capricious fanbase is moot; what is now though unequivocal that Abramovich could do with a man like Benitez at the Bridge – someone of proven ability at the highest level of European domestic football. Despite stories linking the 59-year old with an unlikely return why would he voluntary depart Newcastle and its adoring fans for a veritable bear pit, for perhaps another 15-minutes of fame and a hefty pay off?
Making mistakes are part of every life cycle, from human existence to the business world. Quite aside from the conditions that made Maurizio Sarri’s position at Chelsea untenable, when instead he should have been supported both behind closed doors and in public, the club now seem intent on remedying a serious error with yet another. A mutual magnetizing is undoubtedly evident between the club and Frank Lampard, the current Derby County manager but perhaps now in name only. On departing Stamford Bridge for short playing spells at Manchester City and in the United States Lampard, similar to his erstwhile England colleague Steven Gerrard at Glasgow Rangers, sought a path back to the top of the game from outside the Premier League. Widely regarded as the most difficult division from which to be elevated the Championship was even considered by many to be too humble a posting for a former player used to all the glitz and luxury attendant with the top flight, and whilst Lampard’s charges ultimately fell short against Aston Villa and former teammate John Terry in the Wembley play off final, there were signs that another season of measured growth would return the 41-year old and the East Midlands club to the promised land.
What has since transpired potentially puts Lampard’s stellar legacy as Chelsea’s record goalscorer and darling of the fans at great risk. Moving to a Premier League lesser light after only one season at the helm of a club in the English Football League(EFL) would be risky in itself but by negating the crucial years of his managerial apprenticeship, Lampard will find little in the way of a honeymoon period should Abramovich and supporters start getting twitchy.
Chelsea’s fans have rarely had a positive image with rival supporters but since Abramovich helicoptered into West London his revolving door, trigger happy impatience has been subsumed by a fanbase whose number strangely swelled exponentially. Will a series of poor results under the guidance of Frank Lampard be met with shrugged shoulders and indifference by supporters and the owner? I think all know the answer to that. Why then risk such a glittering legacy so soon, when even Lampard himself should admit it is premature? Knowing Stamford Bridge inside out and the name of the tea lady doesn’t guarantee results on the pitch.
The wacky world of impatience and regret is far from the preserve of Chelsea’s dugout. For every Danny Drinkwater, Jorginho, and Alvaro Morata expensively and mistakenly acquired there are those including Mohamed Salah, Kevin de Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku, Juan Cuadrado and Andre Schurrle who were let go without being afforded sufficient time to blossom into the players they subsequently became. Could Mason Mount, Tammy Abraham, and Callum Hudson-Odoi become similar victims of the demand for instant results produced instead by those with superstar billing? It is irony itself that perhaps only installing Lampard as Chelsea’s next manager can prevent the aforementioned trio from seeking pastures new.
Eden Hazard had done all he could in the Chelsea blue, and whilst some lingering doubts remain whether he could have kicked on to become a genuine galactico whilst at Stamford Bridge the Belgian was at times held back by a lack of surrounding quality. It must though be sobering for Chelsea fans to witness approximately half of the £90 million transfer fee paid for Hazard by Real Madrid reportedly being wasted on the Croat, Mateo Kovacic. On loan last season and seemingly surplus to requirements from the Bernabeu Kovacic’s appearances for Chelsea began poorly and deteriorated thereon in. Guilty of drifting out of games in which he hadn’t previously drifted into Kovacic’s presence on the pitch rarely became apparent until he once more surrendered possession to the opposition. A fee of approximately £45 million doesn’t buy a tier 1 team very much in this day and age, unless a player of greater repute is in the final 6-12 months of his contract, but for Chelsea to waste such an amount, and significant percentage of the fee received for Hazard on Kovacic, reemphasizes the clubs many historic transfer mistakes. And yet, there is more to the Kovacic deal than initially meets the eye.
Chelsea are currently precluded from making any signings in the next two transfer windows, in effect the summer of 2020 being the next time that those changing clubs for a fee will be able to join the Blues. Predicated by an apparent breach of regulations pertaining to acquiring players under the age of 18 from overseas, the case now rests with the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Should the ban be upheld Chelsea will basically have to go with what they have got; for most clubs this could be classed as a restraint of trade but the vast playing resources at Stamford Bridge, including approximately 40 players who went out on loan, ensures Chelsea can at least weather the storm, and potentially assimilate the likes of Mount, Abraham, and Hudson-Odoi, the latter on return from a serious injury, into the squad. Quite whether Abramovich’s pride could cope with his own club fielding several youngsters reared through the system or sourced from elsewhere is debatable, but could such a potential restriction be the catalyst to bringing back Lampard – for him to work with such a rich supply of youth talent at Chelsea?
Which finally brings me back to the much maligned Kovacic. The current situation prevents Chelsea from signing players from today until the end of the August 2019 transfer window, and again during its January 2020 incarnation. There does though appear to be a loophole, as is often the case, that allows Chelsea to sign Kovacic before June 30th, the day which his loan deal from Real Madrid formally expired. If the player is signed on a permanent transfer whilst on loan, which he still was as of yesterday, despite the 2018/19 season ending weeks ago, that would only count as one transaction and be allowed within the current ruling. If the transfer was initiated today, the day from which the ruling takes effect, Kovacic, or anyone else, wouldn’t be able to join the club. The most pertinent question is therefore the most obvious: would Mateo Kovacic had been signed after July 1st under normal circumstances on the strength of his displays last season? I would strongly suggest the answer to be no. If the Croat has been signed as an insurance policy should the Court of Arbitration for Sport uphold the original judgment it represents a piece of very expensive padding out of a squad that can in actuality absorb a temporary ban on incoming transfers from within, without the need to reunite the team with one of the most overrated foreign players to ever grace the Premier League.
Notwithstanding the again questionable motivation of acquiring a player not necessarily needed, nor perhaps of sufficient quality Chelsea will, whatever transpires, have a new signing within their ranks this pre-season. The American Christian Pulisic, bought in January from Borussia Dortmund but immediately loaned back to the German giants will join the squad for pre-season training and games, including two in Japan. Far from being a guaranteed starter at Dortmund it is therefore queried how the 20-year old will ever justify a £57 million price tag, albeit one that it isn’t his fault and more reflects the financial resources of the Premier League and the full knowledge of which that’s enjoyed by the selling club, rather than an appraisal of his current and latent abilities. To have spent the equivalent and more of the Hazard transfer on Kovacic and Pulisic shows poor judgment, and another example of complete disregard for the justifiably frustrated who are prevented from laying legitimate claim to a place within Chelsea’s first team squad.
Will a year from now be just another regurgitation, complemented by a 2019/20 update, of Chelsea’s failure to keep hold of its stars, the signing of those of insufficient quality amid another round on the managerial merry-go-round? It is hard to bet against it, although even from a non-Chelsea supporting standpoint, I hope they eventually learn from what has been an extremely harsh, and oft-repeated lesson. But will they?