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Where are Chelsea headed?

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Time is a flat circle

Chelsea v Manchester City - Premier League Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images

Two weeks after losing to Bournemouth in a manner that can only be described as embarrassing, Chelsea Football Club managed to outdo themselves Sunday night. Manchester City may be significantly better, in all aspects, but to lose six goals to none!? Have things really come to this Arsenal-level of ineptitude at Chelsea, too?

That may sound harsh, but Chelsea have been in a long-term downward spiral for some time now. The magnitude of the scoreline on the night was probably down to foolhardy tactics and players lacking fight, but the issues at the club run much deeper than that. Mike Dean’s shrill final whistle at the Etihad just exposed them a bit more.

Since 2008-09, Chelsea have won the Premier League three times (as many as Manchester City), the Champions League and the Europa League once each, not to mention a few domestic cups, but the club’s overall trajectory has been questionable. What the trophies gloss over is the unsustainable manner in which the club has been run for a decade now. Arbitrary transfers, managerial merry-go-round, disconnect between the academy and first-team — all factors contributing to the current situation.

Manchester City v Chelsea FC - Premier League Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

The Maurizio Sarri conundrum is the main focus at the moment. Here’s a head coach who seems steadfast in living and dying by his strict footballing philosophy, in stark contrast to his predecessor, Antonio ‘The Tailor’ Conte. But where Conte managed to also fashion himself an untenable relationship with the club, Sarri seems to retain the faith. In circumstances that in the past would’ve surely resulted in a sacking, Chelsea seem almost reluctant to call for his head. Is it worth affording Sarri time to implement his system, or is his admission of “not being able to motivate the players” and his uninspiring phase of tactical development indication enough to suggest he isn’t the one for us? Is it the manager, or is it the players? Having witnessed, and partaken in endless discussion on these topics, I can only arrive at the conclusion that they eventually devolve into circular arguments because there are problems bigger than any of the aforementioned.

There was a time when Chelsea were a financial powerhouse, able to throw more money around more often than almost any other club in the world. But those days are gone. Other clubs have caught up, and we haven’t adapted. We almost did once — around 2011 — when some semblance of direction resulted in the acquisitions of Kevin de Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku, Juan Mata, Oscar, Eden Hazard, César Azpilicueta, Victor Moses and erm, Marko Marin. Following the Terror of Torres, the focus had shifted to purchasing young players with high ceilings. Remarkable mismanagement saw some sold, but others carried us to a pair of title wins in 2014-15 and 2016-17, with the Palpable Discord Parade and Chelsea Austerity Program FC interleaved with them. Twice now we’ve won league titles, only to spectacularly crash and burn the following season. Why is that?

Chelsea failed to sufficiently strengthen the squad in each transfer window following a title win (see also: 2010-11). Before the acquisitions of Kepa and Jorginho this past summer, Chelsea had been reluctant to spend astronomical amounts on world class players such as Virgil Van Dijk, but at the same time, splashed out ludicrous amounts on middling back-ups like Danny Drinkwater, Olivier Giroud and Davide Zappacosta, or players who eventually ended up shipped out on loan like Michy Batshuayi or Tiemoue Bakayoko. This is either poor planning or no planning at all, but it’s not a good situation either way. Chelsea appear to be too caught up in the short-term, fumbling with ideas of attractive football, Champions League wins and being part of the European elite, all of which are simply beyond our grasp at this point in time.

Chelsea FC Training Session Photo by Will Russell/Getty Images

I see the phrase ‘Trust the Process’, often augmented with a hash-tag, thrown around on social media a lot these days. It’s mostly ascribed to Maurizio Sarri’s struggle to instill his tactics into the current squad, but to trust a process, there must be one in the first place. This summer — regardless of what happens of Sarri until then — the club will be at major crossroads. Willian, Pedro, Eden Hazard and somehow, even Callum Hudson-Odoi, will all have one year left on their contracts. Meanwhile, David Luiz and Gary Cahill are on course to seeing their contracts expire in four months. If ever there was a time to chalk out a direction for the club, it is now.

Meanwhile, after a decade of heavy investment, Chelsea’s academy is beginning to bear fruit. Andreas Christensen, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Callum Hudson-Odoi are all capable of playing in the Premier League at the very least, but continue to find minutes hard to come by. No doubt, they’d be seen as “risks” when compared to under-performing senior pros by any manager who knows he answers to a trigger-happy board. But this wealth of young talent at Chelsea’s disposal is exactly what can help take us in the right direction. Prospects such as Reece James, Mason Mount and Tammy Abraham could easily replace the likes of Zappacosta, Ross Barkley and Olivier Giroud in the current squad.

Whenever young players are mentioned, there’s a misunderstanding that the implication is to have a lineup full of teenagers. The actual proposition instead would be to transition them into regulars over time whilst also building a core of players who are one with the club’s culture. If Harry Kane, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Marcus Rashford and most recently Aaron Wan-Bissaka have been able to become highly coveted Premier League regulars after limited or no time out on loan, then surely it is not a risk of monumental proportions to use young players as backups and rotation options — leaving more money for high end transfer business, too.

Of course, all of this would be more comfortable for a manager to adhere to if he weren’t made to walk a tightrope by The Board — the ever-so-infamous “Board”. We’d do well to keep in mind that (probably) nothing at the club gets carried out against the will of Roman Abramovich, despite the likes of Michael Emenalo, Marina Granovskaia, Scott McLachlan and numerous others being blamed for the club’s failures in the past and even today. Abramovich has done an immeasurable amount to elevate the club to where it is today but it may not be blasphemous to suggest that he’s also holding it back — unless there’s a change in mentality with respect to the club’s progression.

Chelsea Football Club are in a vicious circle, a vortex from which there is no getting out unless the thinking changes from Abramovich and those around him. It’s time to stop resorting to short-term fixes and firefighting, to address the root cause of our problems, to take a step back and take the time to refresh and truly transition to a better tomorrow.

Chelsea v Tottenham Hotspur - Carabao Cup: Semi-Final Second Leg Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images