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joetweedie | January 18, 2016

The Harding  Perspective

The Road Ahead

There are around a dozen unfinished articles sitting on my laptop at the moment. Much like Chelsea's title defence they remain discarded as an afterthought. Thousands of words tinged with disappointment; disheartened that Chelsea had finally been consumed by the storm that had ominously loomed on the horizon. I could not quite bring myself to finish any of them. This season has felt like déjà vu - no discernible difference in performance from one week to the next. We have regressed to an unthinkable level.

This was the year when Chelsea were meant to push forward, title in hand, establishing some semblance of control over the Premier League. A season where Mourinho clicked in Europe and Chelsea moved back towards the summit of football. With a huge new sponsorship deal and riding a wave of positivity it was the summer to buy genuine world class talent to take us to the next level. How expectations change. In a few short months Chelsea went from "it's just preseason" to "it's a blip" to "is it more than a blip?" to "is it a crisis?" to "it is a crisis" to Mourinho getting sacked.

Mourinho's departure is not something that I am going to write about. There have been some excellent pieces written concerning the matter from a host of different viewpoints. Equally, I find the narrative tiresome. We may never know the ins and outs of this debacle, so how anyone can vehemently blame x or y is just confirmation bias at this point. Something feels manifestly wrong with the club: the detachment between players and fans is arguably at an all-time high.

Chelsea have often thrived in chaos: though, many people have feared the wheels falling off at some point. Riding perfectly within the eye of the storm for nearly ten years seemed unsustainable. Maybe a stringent adherence to Financial Fair Play was the coup de grâce? As Chelsea sought to balance the books the quality in the squad has declined. Many have argued with me in the past whether this was the case, but surely it is irrefutable now? Last season's gargantuan effort with such a small squad has taken its toll. Entering the season with three injury prone strikers was certainly a microcosm of our squad management.

Looking to both the remainder of this season and beyond changes need to be made that alter the makeup of the club. While we are uniquely successful amidst turmoil, Mourinho's appointment was meant to signal a push towards long-term stability. With results continuing to suffer the club decided to swing the axe. The identity that Mourinho was trying to create may or may not have worked. However, Chelsea flitting between André Villas-Boas, Roberto Di Matteo, Rafa Benitez and José Mourinho intimates no one really has a clue where they want the club to head.

Send in the Tanks

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If you think back to the first five years of the Roman era Chelsea were synonymous with a robust footballing philosophy: technical powerhouses in midfield, top quality defenders and attackers with pace. We could bully any team, outplay most, dig in, fight and score freely. Then the decision to move towards "Barcelona in blue" reversed that trend and smaller technical players were sought. Someone looked at Ancelotti's beautiful 2009/10 double winning side and thought they could do better going in another direction.

The irony is not lost on many who note that Chelsea won the European Cup (2012), Europa League (2013) and the Premier League (2014/15) in spite and not because of this shift. Did we win the European Cup playing free-flowing attacking football? Or did we win it by being defensively solid, resolute and determined? Last season we started the Premier League as open as we have been in many years, only to revert to type after humiliation at White Hart Lane.

Chelsea are not built to tiki-taka. Chelsea are built to pulverise teams. Trying to play like Barcelona without the very best players stylistically is never going to work in the Premier League. Someone on the board must have realised this by now? We have won trophies in a manner that does not correlate with the personality of the squad they are trying to construct.

Poignantly it was the Paris Saint-Germain game last season that really highlighted just how far Chelsea had fallen from Europe's top table. PSG, a side crafted in the image of early Roman era Chelsea, simply were more physical and stronger where it counted. Despite going down to ten men they dominated play in a manner that Chelsea sides of old did and this current side cannot. People can look at Mourinho's negativity in this match but PSG callously exposed the inherent weakness within our team.

Chelsea are stuck in philosophical purgatory. Neither good enough to consistently outplay sides nor strong enough to power through and blitz teams. This is a squad assembled without depth or an overall strategy in mind. People will rightly point to the league title as vindication for Chelsea's approach of selling potential for immediate gains, but in the long-term that only works if you consistently hit every summer transfer window perfectly.

Getting rid of high character players (Čech/Luiz), creative talents (Mata), players with immense potential (Lukaku and De Bruyne) and decent squad options (Schürrle/Bertrand) for those who have come in (Cuadrado, Salah, Pedro, Djilobodji, Luis, Rahman etc.) highlights the decline in quality. Obviously hindsight is a wonderful thing, but I assume Chelsea have a team of extremely well paid scouts, analysts and directors making decisions about who we sign. They purportedly know more than the collective opinion of Chelsea fans combined. Yet, we are at a point where actually shifting deadwood would improve the squad dramatically. To allow things to deteriorate to this point is borderline negligence.

A serious rethink needs to happen concerning the squad and the direction the side is heading. I would prefer a return to something more robust than trying to force a style of play which seems incompatible with the pace and competitiveness of Premier League football. With Nemanja Matić's head scratching decline and Cesc Fàbregas' patchy form we are unable to compete in big matches, Chelsea have to look elsewhere. The engine room needs revamping if we have designs beyond merely returning to a competitive level within the Premier League.

Watching a Chelsea side play at a pedestrian speed, run in quicksand through midfield and get outmuscled by average Premier League players is about as far from this ideal as possible. Beating sides 8-0 in 2009/10 was not enough? We had to try and reinvent the wheel. Even Guardiola cannot say his wholesale changes at Bayern Munich have yielded more success than Jupp Heynckes. Frankly the style of football seemingly desired will not happen with this squad regardless of the manager.

The damage done in this pursuit of an unobtainable goal could take years to correct. People expecting Chelsea to bounce back immediately next season need to look at Manchester United and Liverpool as an illustration of where the club are. Failing to bring in quality time and time again is not as simple to remedy as throwing a cheque book at the problem.

Who is going to want to come here without Champions League football anyway? Do we really want players here purely because we have offered them exorbitant wages? The road back to the top requires a lot of changes in playing personnel, something I do not trust the club to actually manage properly. After all this is a club who spent an entire summer flirting with John Stones and ended up buying Papy Djilobodji.

We seem to specialise in buying players incongruous with the demands of Premier League football (Mohamed Salah, Juan Cuadrado, Pedro, Baba Rahman etc.). A club who have ignored the fact that every manager tried David Luiz (and later Kurt Zouma) as a midfielder in big games primarily due to our lack of power and yet never bought a midfielder in this mould. A club who seem to think they know best. Judging by conversations I have had and read I think the confidence level in Chelsea's board is at an all-time low.

The Youth Quandary

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If you are a social media user it is likely that the question of "playing the kids" has cropped up on your timeline at some point this season. Arguably Mourinho's biggest downfall involved repeatedly trusting underperforming senior players to get us out of an entrenched rut. He had a multitude of options to go with but seemingly felt what he was seeing was better than taking a risk. Ruben Loftus-Cheek was promised a run of games that never materialised. Attacking talents (Kenedy/Traoré) were being pigeonholed in as left-backs. No one could handle the pressure in Mourinho's eyes.

There is a middle ground between the #YouthFundamentalists and the "they-clearly-aren't-good-enough-to-play-brigade". In the world of social media opinions tend to be more binary than ever. There seems little appetite or desire to wander through the realms of grey. Things are black and white. Kids should play regardless or not at all. Personally the fact Traoré, Kenedy and Loftus-Cheek could not get a chance when the team struggled is ridiculous. No one is suggesting (at least who I consider reasonable) that any of the youngsters must start every game. But when you have witnessed the lethargy of this squad all season, what did we have to lose? Not even 30 minutes at the end of games? Even Wenger chucks on Alex Iwobi with 20 minutes to play to try and win a game.

As Loftus-Cheek is the most likely Academy product to break through at this point, Rúben Neves and Youri Tielemans are excellent benchmarks to compare development arcs with. Over the past 2-3 seasons Neves and Tielemans have played significantly more than Loftus-Cheek. Domestically, Dele Alli is miles ahead of Loftus-Cheek when it comes to playing time (1,918 minutes with Tottenham this season).

Chelsea's handling of youngsters is quite simply atrocious. There is absolutely no substitute for playing senior level matches, regardless of the level. You cannot develop coasting through U21 football or just training. Loftus-Cheek has flaws, as all young players do, but how is he meant to improve upon them when he is playing such little football? If the flaws are deemed too big a risk why is he sitting on our bench and not playing elsewhere?

Alli's rise to prominence this season and development has been astounding. Considering that before this season his main footballing education has been in League One and the Championship, he has slotted into Tottenham's team seamlessly. Similarly Neves and Tielemans are names on every top European club's lips despite playing in lesser leagues. Ruben will never improve his positioning (with and without the ball), stamina (cited as his main weakness) or overall game playing 4 times in a year. It is an impossible task. People demand more from him - more what exactly? It took Harry Kane a series of mediocre loan spells to put it together at Tottenham. Do we need a kid to be Lionel Messi to start? Saying that he would probably be on loan at Vitesse.

No youngster is going to get the sort of game time that these aforementioned players have enjoyed while at Chelsea. We are not a club who afford chances to youngsters, even in the face of our worst season in nearly twenty years. If you were to juxtapose seasons on a pound-for-pound basis this might be our worst ever in the Premier League given the talent available. If Loftus-Cheek is rated by the club, as we continually hear, why is he allowed to stagnate during his formative years bench warming? The academy is a vanity project in the absolute worst way.

If he cannot get in the team at all Loftus-Cheek needs to go on loan where he is going to play on a weekly basis. The level does not matter if the talent is there - Alli's performances are a clear indication that game time helps development. Mauricio Pochettino places faith in his young English talent and is rewarded. Our midfield falters on a weekly basis and still Loftus-Cheek sits on the bench. How Kenedy and Traoré have sat by and watched Eden Hazard's awful form, Pedro looking like the Catalan Salah and Oscar's 1 in 10 performances is mindboggling.

I am by no means suggesting Loftus-Cheek (you can interchange him for Charly Musonda, Kenedy or Bertrand Traoré) is guaranteed to be a world class footballer or even a starter. What I want to see is a commitment to determining what it is we actually have in these talented youngsters. They do not go to Barcelona and outplay them, win the U19s European Cup etc. through luck. These are top players who need a pathway to determining if they can make the grade.

When John Terry eventually retires the link to this squad lessens drastically for me. The need to have an English academy product playing is as great as it ever has been. Ruben gets it, already has an affinity with match going supporters and can start taking steps towards filling what will be a huge vacuum upon Terry's retirement. You could see what it meant to him in his face when he scored against Scunthorpe. I do believe creating an English/British/Anglicised (Eiður Guðjohnsen for example was for all intents and purposes English) core is imperative for the mentality of the squad.

Nathaniel Chalobah looks like he has missed the boat, despite conceptually being everything that this side needed in midfield. He is athletic, tough in the tackle, can pass and powerful. Given 30 games who knows what might have happened? Can it be worse than seeing Nemanja Matić pull out of tackles in midfield? Fàbregas fail to break into anything constituting a sprint? Ramires' wayward passing? Lewis Baker may question what the club has in store for him. When I look at Oscar's level this season, is it much more than what Baker could achieve given trust and time? Dominic Solanke has plenty of years ahead of him before questions are asked. However, Izzy Brown may wonder what he is doing on loan at Vitesse when he probably would be playing for West Bromwich Albion on a regular basis had he stayed.

Final Thoughts

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This season is one that I would like to see finish as soon as possible. A new manager with the ability to create an identity must be found. You wonder how well Diego Simeone's approach would work with overpaid and pampered stars, rather than Atlético Madrid's more grounded squad. Equally, Pep Guardiola manages front runners and of that there is no debate where we currently sit. How does Jorge Sampaoli's methodology stack up in the Premier League? Chile are undoubtedly great to watch, but does that style translate to a 45-50 game season?

Who is going to make the decisions on the squad? We have been getting progressively weaker year-on-year and another window like the one in the summer could see Chelsea cement themselves as an also-ran. The club have successfully assembled a squad full of squad players. We have people playing regularly who you would not mind rotating into the side to give more established stars a rest. But starting every week? Not a chance. Who can we look to buy that is actually going to want to come here without ridiculously overinflated wages? We are probably looking less at the likes of Paul Pogba and more at his brother Mathias.

Lastly, do the club want to try to integrate its world class academy into the squad? I continually hear "well, no one has left Chelsea and actually done anything" or "the club see them every day in training and don't pick them". While of course that is true it overlooks the fact that this group of Chelsea players are the strongest the club has ever had in the academy. Likewise if the club are seeing youngsters in training and determining they are not good enough, who is evaluating what the first team do on the pitch as acceptable? Do we have a plan to actually develop youngsters in that crucial 18-21 period? Right now it seems like Chelsea view the academy as just a way to make money. If we were buying world class talent I think I could understand, but selling kids to fund the likes of Salah and co. is madness.

We feel lost as a club at the moment. The removal of José Mourinho was meant to signify a fresh start with the apparent source of our problems going. However, as Guus Hiddink has found out, this Chelsea side simply are not that good. We cannot defend, our midfield is slow and our forward line uncreative and lightweight. Emenalo spouting nonsense regarding "this being the same group of players who won the league in style" is incredibly blinkered. We needed investment in the summer and what Mourinho received was beyond underwhelming.

Hopefully going forward the club know what it wants to be. Without direction and the unerring persistence of a Barcajax model who knows what the future holds. The road ahead is going to be a difficult one to navigate. We can only hope the club start to make better decisions. Or else the future at that bright and shiny new stadium looks bleak.

About the Author

Plains of Almería Editor & WAGNH Features Writer.