On Chelsea and Individualism

Mike Hewitt

Chelsea used to be one of the dominant forces in world football, but they no longer are. Why is that? Fernando Torres knows, but may not actually be aware that he does.

Never give an interview on a plane. That's a rule, right? What's that? It isn't? It should be. Harumph.

Anyway, in that interview, Fernando Torres has seemingly blamed Chelsea's lack of team spirit for his mesmerising lack of form. The sad thing is, he's kind of right. Not about his form. God no. That's about the deficiencies in his game, and less-than-ever-present motivation. But he's got a point about Chelsea and team spirit. Too often this season, Chelsea have looked like a group of 11 individuals, rather than a co-ordinated team unit. When you look at a club like Manchester United, who are, individually, probably not as good as Chelsea, romping away with yet another title, you know it's important and a problem. I'm getting ahead of myself, though. Let's look at what Torres actually said, from the Telegraph:

"It's difficult in this team because we really depend too much on individuality.

"We have players like [Eden] Hazard, [Juan] Mata, Oscar and [Frank] Lampard - they are talented players so we are not speaking about tactics. It's a bit more difficult than my time with him [Benitez] in Liverpool.

"But it's good as well because we know what we have to do and we have the extra help from the talent of our players. It's not been easy for anyone but the team are improving.

"Every day you learn new things and you change a little bit. The key is to adapt to a new system, new players, a new style of football and that takes some time.

"In my case, it has maybe taken more time than it should but after a couple of seasons here I can see how different the team are compared to when I arrived, with different players.

"We have to be clever and focused in the adaptation of the new ideas of the team, the manager and the kind of football we're playing now. This is the main difference. My mind is more open than before and I can see what I have to do to improve."

Everything past the first two sentences is pretty much drivel, and standard footballer interview crap. Those first two sentences seem to be Torres' real feelings, which escaped before the media training chip could kick in to block them out. One thing is clear, though: Chelsea do rely too much on individuality.

How many times have Chelsea been bailed out by the individual brilliance of a single player at the death this season? If you can't think of at least five, you've probably not being paying much attention this season. In any case, that's far too many for a team with ambitions of title challenges and wins. Beyond the fact that each miraculous rescue was the product of a single player's contribution, we should be worried that those contributions were often necessary due to an over-reliance on individual talent. Perhaps it's more accurate to say it another way. It's a lack of a cohesive team spirit.

As recently as exactly one year ago, when what is by-and-large the same team repelled the then-mighty Barcelona, in Barcelona, for 90 minutes, most of which with ten men and Jose Bosingwa at centre back, and then against the now-dominant Bayern in the final. Just a year on, the idea of this Chelsea producing such another such performance boggles the mind. Perhaps that's a reflection on just how impossible that Champions League title was, but it seems more likely that Chelsea have lost their intangible edge.

Of course, the winter slump has been a major feature of Chelsea's season for three seasons in succession now, so it's not a surprise any more. Each time, though, it seems to get more severe, and less-recoverable. This season has been arguably the worst, with only excellent rescues from Juan Mata, Eden Hazard, Victor Moses, Fernando Torres, Frank Lampard, and many more keeping the club in contention for a Champions League place. It's shocking, but this is a club who most-recently finished sixth in the Premier League, after all.

What's happened to Chelsea? A club who, just three years ago, were romping to a Premier League and FA Cup double, scoring a record 103 League goals in the process? Malaria. It's just my personal theory, of course, but I really think Didier Drogba's bout of malaria in 2010 is the root cause of our decline. With all that's been said over the years about John Terry and Frank Lampard being the heart and soul of Chelsea, it's kind of amazing to me how the contribution of our Ivorian demi-god has been overlooked. In some sense, he's the best Chelsea captain we were never able to have.

That's a bold statement, sure, but I truly believe it. In the Mourinho era, the manager himself was the driving force behind Chelsea. His influence tied the squad together under him, and played for him and each other. After he went, though, that ability, thankfully, survived his most-trusted players. John Terry is the long-serving Chelsea captain and Mr. Chelsea. Frank Lampard has been his main understudy seemingly forever. While they're both beloved by fans and well-respected by the squad, neither is really a player who can rally the players together into a team. At least not in the same way as Drogba is. The man ended a war, for crap's sake.

One only has to look at the Champions League run a year ago to see just how vital Didier Drogba was in inspiring that squad. Back to my original point, though, about malaria. After he contracted it, Drogba was never quite the same player. That illness accelerated his decline. It was always coming, though, Drogba was getting old in football terms, but malaria prematurely-made him a player who was no longer an automatic selection for Chelsea. That wasn't necessarily a problem, all players get old. Not adequately-replacing him in that time, however, was a sin, though. When I say replace him, I mean in his symbolic role as team leader [We didn't really replace him as a player either, but that's next to impossible.]

Chelsea simply haven't bought many players capable of taking over from Drogba in providing the x factor required for success. Terry doesn't really do that. He's a leader and an inspirational one, but he's not necessarily the sort of player who can bring a team together on and off the pitch. Lampard, on the other hand, is about as individual as you can get. He's managed to claw out a long career at the top, despite not really fitting into an established role. That's not to take anything away from him, he deserves all the praise he gets, but he's never really presented himself in the Drogba mould of team inspiration.

As I pointed out earlier, Manchester United have strolled to yet another Premier League title this season on the back of a squad whose main strength is its unity, rather than its technical brilliance. It's always been true that to win titles, you need to grind out results. To grind out results, though, you need a team who play together, not as individuals. Some teams get it through a manager whose presence permeates every aspect of the club, namely United under Sir Alex Ferguson, and Chelsea-era Jose Mourinho, others through a talismanic player who leads from the pitch, like post-Mourinho Drogba, but all great teams have that spirit and ability to come together to turn bad days into points.

Chelsea don't have that, really. When we're allowed to play our game, we can beat anyone, but we lack the sort of player who holds people in their new roles. That causes the team to fall apart into 11 individuals running around on their own. Of course, part of it is our sub-standard manager, but even Roberto di Matteo wasn't able to keep them together towards the end of his tenure.

David Luiz will always be a controversial figure, but he's been a fan-favourite since day one, and is clearly popular with the squad. One need only look at this series of photos from his birthday party for proof of that. With Terry and Lampard edging closer to the end of their Chelsea careers, I think David Luiz is one of the players Chelsea can look to to help replace them. It's not a surprise to me that the team has tended to be better with him on the pitch. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying David Luiz is necessarily an answer to the problem, let alone the only answer, but he's definitely the sort of player who can put his imprint on a club.

If Chelsea are going to escape the cycle of individualism, they're going to need a lot more players like David Luiz around. We really need to get better at looking at players' mental strength and how they could fit into the squad, not just their technical quality. Mourinho was great at that during his time at Chelsea, evidenced by his team continuing together for several years after his departure. Perhaps, then, it's a good thing he's the favourite to succeed our Interim Manager this summer. Whether he ultimately does return or not, it would be good idea to emulate his previous tenure here. And to clone Drogba. That would be great.

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