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joetweedie | February 13, 2016

The Keys to the Kingdom

As Manchester City embark upon their Pep Guardiola odyssey Chelsea’s own future seems somewhat dim. When comparing the two powerhouses the differences are stark and perhaps a little galling. City appear focused, clinical in their execution and professional in the establishment of a robust infrastructure. Chelsea, on the other hand, have finally succumbed to a storm that has loomed ominously on the horizon for years. Quite possibly the worst title defence in recent memory continues to unfurl before our eyes: a campaign interposed by politicking and infighting is still yet to show signs of improvement. At this stage of Roman’s tenure things should be easy. Instead of Chelsea being a perennial European juggernaut we look on the brink of starting over. It is incredible to think of just how many cracks were papered over by ‘the old guard’. I do, however, remain optimistic for the future.

Undoubtedly Chelsea have lost their seat at the top table. The direction of the club, particularly post-Ancelotti, is baffling. Just what are we trying to achieve? We have won trophies in spite of the way the club is run and not because of it. This vision of Barcelona in blue disappeared when Chelsea needed to show resilience and fight. De rigueur punching bag Michael Emenalo continues to occupy a role he seems unqualified to serve. Although, it must be said, with the volume of anger aimed in his direction people do need to see the bigger picture. Emenalo, rightly or wrongly, has grown to represent the tangible face of the board. Yet, I feel you are incredibly naïve if you believe he is making decisions of his own volition. There is either a committee of people who run the club (the mythical Football Board) or the owner calls all the shots. Realistically I cannot see a multi-billionaire allowing someone of Emenalo’s stature to run his football club. He may well not be very good at his job, but decisions that are causing consternation are certainly not being made at his level.

"Emenalo cannot entirely be at fault for every issue we see in the squad"

As a Technical Director Emenalo provokes a lot of ire; in his official capacity he heads up the scouting and academy programmes. In truth we will never know what significance Emenalo does or does not play in transfers (or any other matter at the club). Depending on your persuasion he either discovered talent which was sold by José Mourinho (and others) or he has failed to revitalise a squad in desperate need of additions. Flip a coin and take your pick.  The board have suggested that every decision on playing personnel is ratified by the manager. However, Brendan Rogers' insight into the workings of a modern transfer committee would suggest otherwise. This is without delving into the inconsistencies in awarding Branislav Ivanović a one-year deal and leaving the decision surrounding John Terry to the new manager.

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Looking at the ins and outs of prior summers I am certain that Emenalo cannot entirely be at fault for every issue we see in the squad. Do we credit him with the decisive action around signing Eden Hazard? Or being the first person to really tap into Belgium's burgeoning talent pool? Or are you only as good as your last transfer window? If that is the case then this past summer our arrogance (you could hear this in Emenalo's famous "The Individual" interview) led to a few bargain bucket additions, a panic buy and a loan that looks like a Jorge Mendes backhander. Our pursuit of John Stones made the club look foolish and the desperate need for help in midfield seemed to be ignored. As a Technical Director you cannot look at this Chelsea squad and believe everything is fine. While "this is the same group of players who won the league" is a factual statement, it was a group desperate in need of additional quality. Even if Emenalo is a complete and utter ‘yes man' he has a set of eyes. In today's Premier League arms race, where even mid-tier teams can cherry pick quality European talent, you cannot take a backwards step.

If you feel Chelsea's transfer activity is too clandestine to unpick, then Emenalo's biggest failure must be surrounding the lack of integration of Academy (or loan) players into the first team squad. Before you scream about it being the managers' problem, I do agree to some extent, but hear me out. The success of the Academy is, I would imagine, something that falls well under his remit. Of the dozens of loans organised by the club only Thibaut Courtois has actually returned to become a figure of relevance. Equally, we seem reticent to offer any Academy player an extended run in the side despite how poor we are. There is such little thought into the destination that a player heads out on loan that it often resembles a random dart chucked at a dartboard. Kids at Chelsea's Academy are trained from incredibly young ages to play a certain style of football. They are then dumped into teams in the Football League who are incapable of stringing two passes together, yet we wonder why such talented players cannot make the step up into adult football. Nathaniel Chalobah may forever be the poster child of this syndrome for all the wrong reasons. A phenomenal spell at Watford under Gianfranco Zola led to "bigger" things at Nottingham Forest (under a classic direct football manager) and Burnley (under a manager who never intended on playing him).

Of the current crop on loan only Andreas Christensen appears to have made significant strides forward in his development (and we still bought Matt Miazga). Even Chelsea's first team are stylistically at odds with how the club develop players. Surely this is Emenalo's and Emenalo's only to ponder? We have created a culture that makes it almost impossible for a manager to integrate any Academy player. Taking a gamble on a talented youngster is just not possible. Carlo Ancelotti tried it, briefly, in his final season and was unceremoniously sacked in a hallway at Goodison Park for finishing second. If that is the benchmark, there is no manager in world football who is going to give Ruben Loftus-Cheek a run of ten consecutive starts ahead of Nemanja Matić. That is the reality we have created for ourselves. We can blame the managers for not picking the players, but the environment they work in demands success and that is often more easily achieved with international footballers than 18-year old talents. It is easy to sit in the stand and question why player x, y or z are not playing when the first team are playing poorly. I imagine it is more difficult in reality to drop the guy who helped you win the Premier League for a teenager.

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The Academy do an incredible job in developing footballers only for them to plateau during the transition from U18s to first team football. Harry Kane was notoriously poor over the course of his loan spells. Had he been at Chelsea he would have been sold and languishing in the lower leagues somewhere (hello Patrick Bamford, this could be you). However, maybe through necessity, Tottenham persisted with him and gave him the opportunity to develop in their first team. Kane now stands as one of England's best centre forwards and a top Premier League player.

There is absolutely no way on earth he would have developed at Chelsea. We are already seeing Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Bertrand Traoré and Kenedy play so much less than their peers. The lack of any real progress in this respect over Emenalo's 4 ½ years is perplexing. You can look at the manager all you like, but ultimately when you are expected to win almost every week there are few managers on the planet who are willing to play a kid over established international footballers. It is this culture, as much as anything, that does not allow for kids to flourish. Coupled with baffling and ill-considered loans, it is easy to understand why no one looks close to breaking through post-Terry.

"That is the reality we have created for ourselves."

If there was a palpable discord between The IndividualTM and the squad, there is an even bigger discord between the fans and the club. In a time where Chelsea are looking to resolve the longstanding issue of the CPO their approval rating could not be worse. This is why the upcoming summer is the most important in Roman Abramovich's tenure. There can be no more mistakes; the arrogance that has plagued the club must end. For so long we had a spine of players who could get things done in the face of adversity. That is no longer the case.

I think this needs to be a case of lessons well and truly learned for the club. If we can learn from our mistakes I am optimistic about this summer. Abramovich is an incredibly intelligent man and will realise what needs to be done. The fact he gave Mourinho ample time, by our standards, to turn things around at least intimated a desire to shift away from the sacking culture. This summer needs to be a settled one, where we get the big decisions right and push back towards the summit of English football. If we need to hit the reset button this summer and re-establish an identity, then so be it; but with the right manager and correct level of backing from the Football Board it is more than doable. Barring a Munich miracle, it is unlikely that the club will be playing Champions League football next season. If this is the case, it gives us a year to rebuild away from the demands of frequent midweek games.

What remains certain is that we cannot let any key players leave in the summer unless astronomical fees are put on the table. There are plenty of players out there, both in the superstar bracket and elsewhere, who could potentially solve a lot of our issues. How much would N'Golo Kanté have added to our midfield for a mere £5.6m? Giannelli Imbula, equally, went for a mere pittance in the summer and potentially is a great fit in a Premier League side who plays with pace and power. Just no more Michael Hector's, please?

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Unquestionably football is a results based business and the results under Roman Abramovich speak for themselves. He dismissed Claudio Ranieri in lieu of hiring José Mourinho and the culture instilled by the Special One carried us from 2004 up until the 2015 title win. Along the way there have been ups and downs, but the results more often than not have vindicated the approach. I do wonder how Chelsea would have fared under some semblance of stability though. Are we a club whose players just thrived under chaos? Or would more trophies have come if we were a little calmer?

From Ancelotti's double winning season things have become incredibly disjointed. The club suggested they wished to move away from the powerballTM style that had proven so successful with the hiring of André Villas-Boas. Once this fell apart at the seams Roberto Di Matteo picked up the pieces and delivered the European Cup in the most improbable of circumstances. It is easy to forget that when Di Matteo was made the permanent manager Chelsea actually played some great football. However, at the first sign of trouble the club did the unthinkable and hired Rafael Benitez. The Spaniard delivered the Europa League and a coveted top four finish. Cue the return of the Special One and another league title. Enter the realms of palpable discord and enough leaks to sink the Titanic. Back to square one again.

How does a move that starts by hiring André Villas-Boas end up back at José Mourinho? Whether Villas-Boas was the right man for the club at the time is a moot point now. The direction Chelsea wanted to head under Villas-Boas was clear and they paid FC Porto £13.3m for the privilege. He was tasked with not only overhauling the squad but the style of play as well — as an aside Thibaut Courtois, Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne were all signed under Villas-Boas. The club handed him a sole first team signing in Juan Mata, when realistically they needed to go big and back their manager. Subsequent summers saw Chelsea sign more technically creative types as the physical power in the side lessened with each passing window. Chelsea then handed a squad which looked primed for a Barcajax inspired coach to José Mourinho, the purveyor of anti-tiki taka.

Mourinho would, unsurprisingly, prove to be successful and deliver another league title. However, you have to wonder why the club spent years reshaping the squad to then hire a manager who seemingly never fit what they had been aiming for all along. Mourinho attempted to reinstate elements of powerball during his tenure and it ultimately produced a league title in his second season. Yet, the method seemed to both irk and shatter his players. A summer (2015/16) which required serious investment in the squad never transpired and the team reportedly grew disinterested in Mourinho's message. So here we are again.

The club at some level need to determine what their overarching philosophy is going to be. In truth they should look in house at the superb work Neil Bath continues to deliver with Chelsea's Academy. From the day kids join the club there is a consistent message as to how Chelsea play: incisive, attacking football that relies upon great technique, movement and physical ability. It is a theme that can be seen from the U8s to the U21s. At the first team level our style changes every other year. It is much easier to simply have an idea of what you are as a club and find a manager who fits those criteria. As this is not the case are we then expecting a manager to markedly change things every single time we appoint someone new? Where is the continuity?

My personal feeling is that manager's rarely stay beyond a three-year period. Therefore, relying upon a manager to implement a philosophy is pointless. They do not get the time to imbue their personality and style within a playing squad. The only constant in this equation and therefore surely the people to implement the vision are the Football Board. Barcelona's style may evolve slightly, but the general tenets of how they play are firmly entrenched within the club. Chelsea flit from one thing to another and wonder why the squad resembles a mixture of ageing brutes and number tens. Are we a team based on power or creativity? The Academy setup would suggest we want to produce technically gifted footballers with the tactical and athletic ability to play the game on the front foot. The first team is a hodgepodge of styles with no clear methodology behind the squad composition.

"The club at some level need to determine what their overarching philosophy is going to be."

Whatever Chelsea decide it is something they need to commit to. I have mentioned before that this obvious move towards using smaller players in the hopes of developing a technical style has failed. The rigours of the Premier League are incompatible with tippy-tappy football. Jurgen Klopp'swords of advice to the incoming Manchester City manager paint this clearly: "he is in for a shock". We were excellent to watch as a powerball team; strong in defence, technical and robust in midfield, quick and fluid in attack. The departure from this just will not produce consistent results for us domestically or in Europe. We went from regular Champions League semi-finalists, to a team that struggled to get out of the group stages. Our success rooted in sheer will and defensive commitment, rather than the style these players bought would suggest.

The next managerial appointment is absolutely crucial to the direction of the football club. There must be an agreed path that Chelsea are willing to stick to and pursue even if things get rough. Who do we give the keys to the kingdom to? I am going to discount Mauricio Pochettino at this point purely for the Daniel Levy implications. While it would be hilarious to just bid for him (can we do that if anyone from Chelsea is reading?) just for the rage, it is not going to happen. Equally I do not think the club are really going to look at Manuel Pellegrini unless they want a complete lapdog. Didier Deschamps is wholly underwhelming (I bundle into this description Claudio Ranieri, Mark Hughes, Alan Pardew and Eddie Howe). I like Ronald Koeman and what he is doing at Southampton, but it might be a year too soon for him. Another year under Hiddink transitioning to Koeman is certainly something to debate, but has Hiddink really set the world alight in his interim appointment? This leaves Massimiliano Allegri (Juventus), Antonio Conte (Italy), Jorge Sampaoli (unattached) and Diego Simeone (Atlético Madrid) as viable options.

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Diego Simeone is probably the obvious choice to make. In a league where Pep Guardiola and maybe José Mourinho are going to be managing, Simeone seems a sensible appointment. While I rate the work of the Argentine at Atlético, I do fail to see the appeal of essentially appointing another exponent of Mourinho Ball. Sure, there are differences in the application but the foundation remains the same. Is the squad going to commit unreservedly to a style that reportedly caused so much tension? Many fans will see his disciplinarian ways and shades of Mourinho as positives, but this squad are unlikely to meld with the Argentine long-term. Discipline is great until you realise modern footballers just are not built for it.

Simeone's success is down to his players' steadfast devotion to his tactics and their unparalleled work ethic. I am unsure whether these agrarian qualities fit in with Chelsea's more cosmopolitan squad. I can see the reasoning as to why a disciplinarian would be appealing, but this squad require a more delicate touch. The difference in atmosphere under Hiddink and Mourinho is night and day. With John Obi Mikel going as far to say Mourinho stopped listening to his players, do we really want to move down this road again? Do the club see Simeone's overtly negative style as the manner in which they want to commit to?

In many respects Diego Simeone fits Atlético Madrid perfectly. He has a collection of players that certainly do not individually stand out (bar the obvious forward). Simeone creates a team ethic which is unparalleled as everyone buys into the system. One season of selfless devotion to the cause under Mourinho left this squad shattered both physically and mentally. In my opinion it led to divisions between the players and Mourinho and ultimately irreparable damage. Simeone is a gifted manager, of that there is no doubt, but at Chelsea I just cannot see him replicating that success as easily as he has at Atlético. The workmanlike quality is admirable in a world of tiki-tactics; but why get rid of Mourinho just to hire someone not too dissimilar?

Massimiliano Allegri is something of an enigma. In the same way anyone who comes after Pep Guardiola at Barcelona seems to have the gloss taken off their achievements, Allegri suffers the same fate at Juventus. Just how much of his success is down to a foundation laid by someone else? Admittedly the fact he has made Juan Cuadrado resemble a professional footballer does speak volumes of his ability as a coach. After a dour start to Serie A this season Allegri has marched to fourteen consecutive wins and Juventus sit second in the league table. Often successful in Europe, Allegri is certainly someone to keep an eye on. However, you do wonder how high his ceiling is giving the starting point at Chelsea is markedly different to the team he inherited.

Allegri in many respects is in a similar position to Pep Guardiola taking over at Bayern Munich after Jupp Heynckes. Juventus look prettier, the style of play is different, but are they a better side? I like how flexible Allegri is tactically and Juventus are capable of playing some superb stuff, but is it markedly better? My only reservation would be simply that he took over a very good Juventus side and has perhaps improved them slightly. In the way that Carlo Ancelotti was perfectly placed inheriting Chelsea's 2009/10 squad, was Allegri fortunate with this Juventus team?

He has coped admirably with the departure of a world class box-to-box presence in Arturo Vidal and his systems reflect his tactical quality. Either utilising a loose diamond midfield or a 3-5-2, Allegri likes playing two strikers (!) and is perfect at varying build up play. He likes to focus on the midfield area which is possibly Chelsea's biggest area of concern. I certainly would not be averse to taking Allegri, but the club would need to back him in the transfer market to ensure obvious squad frailties are addressed.

Jorge Sampaoli is the wildcard amongst the aforementioned choices. Stylistically there are questions whether his methods would translate from international football to club level. Wildly entertaining, high energy, attacking football with a uniquely pragmatic edge: there are shades of Bielsa in everything he does. However, unlike Bielsa, Sampaoli seems more at ease with fitting his style around what he has available. Having never worked in Europe one would question how quick the adaptation to the Premier League would be. Furthermore, would such a high octane style work over 50-60 games work from a physical standpoint? If we wanted to completely depart from a European style and look at something that involved ridiculous amounts of pressing and brilliantly coached attacking play Sampaoli is the man.

"I have dealt with many coaches in my career but Conte is the one who surprised me the most. He needed just one speech, with many simple words, to conquer both me and Juventus. If Arrigo Sacchi was a genius, then what is he? I expected him to be great, but not that great" - Andrea Pirlo on Antonio Conte.

Lastly there is my personal choice for the role - Antonio Conte. The former Juventus manager was simply outstanding when leading the bianconeri. The one question mark revolved around underperforming in Europe, but it is splitting hairs somewhat. In my eyes the resurgence Juventus saw under Conte has so many parallels to where Chelsea currently find themselves. Tactically he is fascinating - switching seamlessly between shapes and instruction. The de facto 4-2-3-1 formation would probably be banished and the subsequent pigeonholing of players into awkward roles.

Perhaps my favourite thing about Conte is the profile and style of footballer he so obviously likes. His midfield trio often consisted of the silky Andrea Pirlo, powerful yet technically gifted Paul Pogba and the box-to-box animal that was Arturo Vidal. Conte loves technical powerhouses and I could definitely see Cesc Fàbregas fitting into the Pirlo role with two energetic tanks sat alongside him. Commanding centre backs who are encouraged to play. He adores tireless wingbacks. There is room for creativity in his sides. Two strikers! Conte can play in many different ways and this should suit the Premier League where Chelsea face noticeably different styles on a weekly basis.

Conte has an incredibly strong personality and you wonder how that would coexist with the current board. Our shocking pre-season mired by shortness and post-season tours mirrors almost exactly how Conte began to fall out with Juventus. The Italian was annoyed that the club would put commercial interests ahead of the wellbeing of his squad. Moreover, when seeking assurances around star players he was irritated by the club's unwillingness to commit to keeping the likes of Arturo Vidal and Paul Pogba. He is a player's manager and is not afraid to take them on if required.

Juventus played some scintillating football during Conte's time and the variety is something that Chelsea presently lack. Capable of playing on the counter, the front foot, possession oriented or direct, there was a real energy to how Juventus went about their business. Utilising a 3-5-2 or a 4-3-3 we can expect technical football, but with a real powerful to it. The prospect of utilising someone like Eden Hazard in a free role behind Diego Costa is something that would revitalise the Belgian after a disappointing season.

"I knew working for a perfectionist like Antonio Conte would be appealing. He is the perfect man to help me achieve my aims. When I do something good he reminds me there's still more to do. I didn't think I would be where I am at this stage, with 20 games. My progress has been quicker than I expected. Conte told me he believed in me and that I would be useful to the team" - Paul Pogba on the belief Conte instilled in him.

So it is Conte or Allegri for me. One has form rebuilding a team and the other plays wonderful football without compromising any power or solidity. But we need the club pull in the same direction the same issues are going to occur time and time again. The mythical war chest (it's always a war chest, isn't it?) is already being readied according to every newspaper on the planet. If Chelsea go big and decisive in the summer our return to power can be swift and immediate. Then again if we dawdle and spend another summer dipping into the bargain bucket then what we are seeing this season could just become the norm. Try selling that as part of the Chelsea brand.

About the Author

Plains of Almería Editor & WAGNH Features Writer.

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