By about November of last season, I'm reasonably confident that I'd written about a month's worth of previews -- seven matches or so -- which included some form of assertion that Nicolas Anelka would be a useful starter. The striker had been out of form to start the year, then injured for a little bit on top of that, but with the rest of the team struggling the forward line could have used a spark, and Anelka, a versatile, classy forward seemed as good a bet as any to provide it.
But I was completely in the dark about what was actually going on. Anelka, a victim of Andre Villas-Boas' seemingly compulsive need to alienate those who don't share his vision of the future (or cannot contribute to it), would never play for Chelsea again. He'd been punished for his desire to move to Shanghai Shenhua, embarrassed in front of his teammates and demoted to train with the reserves. He was even -- and here one must imagine the slight pause and a raising of the eyebrows of every football journalist who wrote these words, just for atmosphere's sake -- banned from using the senior car park.
It's easy to look back at the injuries done to Alex and Anelka, both of whom would leave the club in January, as the first major sign that something was seriously wrong with the club under Villas-Boas' tenure. With the benefit of hindsight, it seemed like a desperately stupid thing to do by a manager who wanted his authority to overwhelm the infamous Chelsea 'player power'. Fear, he hoped, would keep the players in line.
I'm not entirely sure I buy hindsight, because it leads to thinking in straight lines. Most of us now believe that Villas-Boas was a depressingly corporate manager, a petty tyrant either unaware of how to lead or unable to make compromises with individuals for the overall good of the group. That post-hoc judgement colours our reading of what happened last year, and given the understandable lack of details regarding last year's disaster we may never truly understand what happened at Chelsea under AVB's tenure.
What is clear, however, is that it's not just Villas-Boas who does the exiling-to-the-reserve team business, because that fate has just befallen the spectacularly out of favour Florent Malouda with the Portuguese nowhere in sight. Malouda, 32, has committed the grave error of being owed money by the club that perhaps he's no longer worth, and it appears that Chelsea have decided to put him in the doghouse after he refused a paycut and thus scuppered a potential move to Lyon yesterday.
Now, thanks to the calibre of his play over the last year and a half or so, Malouda isn't the best-liked Chelsea player on the team. I think most Blues fans would have been completely comfortable with him leaving this summer, and I think that was what the majority of us were expecting to happen (although a loan deal a la Michael Essien and Real Madrid would have made more sense).
The main reason why no transfer materialised for Malouda has to be his wage packet. He's no longer the player he once was, but he's clearly capable of being at least somewhat useful to somebody -- you don't make the France starting eleven regularly if you're not a reasonably good footballer. The problem is that he's being paid like an elite one.
Pay no attention to the rumours of £70,000 per week. They're almost certainly not true. Malouda was first signed from Lyon in 2007 as a 27-year-old coming off four straight Ligue 1 titles. Chelsea forked out a reported 13 million for the privilege of signing him. They then extended his contract after his breakout under Guus Hiddink, when he became one of the most influential attacking players in the league. That extension came well before the close of the Financial Fair Play loophole that lets clubs write off wages, so Chelsea had no reason to be thrifty with one of their brightest stars. I'd be extremely surprised if that extension was for much less than £5 million a year.
Malouda immediately rewarded the Blues for their faith in him with a brilliant 2009/10 season which saw Chelsea earn the league and cup double for the the first time in their history. He was also superb for the first few months of Carlo Ancelotti's second year with the club. From there, yes, his form has slowly fallen off, but it's doing him a grave disservice to forget that brilliant eighteen-month spell.
But let's go back to that contract. Let's assume my guess of around £5 million per year is correct. When Chelsea offered him that deal, they agreed that four years of Florent Malouda was worth £20 million or so. Malouda then agreed to stay at Stamford Bridge for that length of time, in exchange for a hefty amount of money. Both parties were, presumably, happy with the deal.
And Chelsea, as it turned out, made a pretty big mistake. Malouda's elite form lasted about 15 months, and since then he's slowly transformed into a bench player. He's probably not as bad as most would like to think -- he's having a downturn in form, sure, but we would probably expect something if a bounceback should he play regularly -- but he's certainly behind at least three names on the depth chart at his favourite position, and there's nothing to indicate he has enough left in the tank to unseat even an injured Marko Marin.
The club, of course, have recognised Malouda's decline in productivity and have apparently been trying to sell him for some time. The barrier to that sale, as I touched on earlier, is that he's being paid elite-Chelsea-player money. Virtually nobody else can absorb that sort of commitment, meaning that a transfer and a new contract would have to come with a significant paycut for the 32-year-old. He'd also lose the opportunity of selling his services to the highest bidder when his current contract runs down, meaning that he stands to lose quite a lot of money over the next few seasons if he goes.
Much of that cash, incidentally, was promised to him by Chelsea three years ago. That's what a contract is. And now the club is punishing Malouda for insisting that the terms of that contract be fulfilled.
I find it difficult to understand those who claim that Malouda is somehow in the wrong here. Yes, it would be slightly beneficial to the club if he goes away. But players have a responsibility to themselves and their families, and we have no idea what Malouda's financial situation is like. Just because a player's on a multimillionaire's salary doesn't mean that losing a massive chunk of that won't sting badly. If he wants to stay, he shouldn't be villified for it.
Chelsea are the ones trying to force him out the door with this move. This isn't going to get anything like the attention that Andre Villas-Boas' contretemps with Anelka and Alex did last year, primarily due to Roberto di Matteo's far-improved handling of press and players, but morally, I think it might be the more bankrupt move.
Three years ago, the club made a mistake in committing a large sum of money to Florent Malouda. Now they're trying to coerce him into giving it back, using embarrassing and underhanded tatics. There's a pretty obvious antagonist here, and it's not the player.
And now, a fitting postscript from Peter Watts:
I interviewed F Malouda a year ago and it was clear that his priority was the impact a transfer would have on his children. As it should be.— Peter Watts (@peter_watts) September 5, 2012