Time for some serious rebuilding at Stamford Bridge.
Many will believe that Chelsea lost the league title in week 36, but I would argue the odds were stacked against them before a ball was kicked this season. In what has been one of the most exciting Premiership seasons ever, Chelsea at first dominated, then capitulated, then were resurrected, and then finally fell short at the final hurdle. A topsy-turvy season has seen Chelsea’s Premiership crown wrestled from them by a determined Manchester United team, who finally blew them away for good last Sunday with a brilliant first half display which left Chelsea battered, bruised and unable to recover. Chelsea’s late charge flatters to deceive and United will end up Champions fairly comfortably. I think the root of Chelsea’s recent demise comes down to two major factors, squad size and age of team.
Whilst the team is arguably one of if not the best technically in the premiership and when on form can destroy teams, they have found it tough going at times this season and I think the problems with an aging team of energy levels and pace were badly exposed in Sunday’s show down.
Chelsea’s squad is the smallest in the premiership, with only eighteen senior outfield players. Now with a squad that small any injuries will impact the match day squad and anything more than five injuries will seriously affect the starting eleven, which is exactly what happened. we had three central midfielders out of the team at the same time, and with only four to chose from (John Obi Mikel, Michael Essien, Frank Lampard and Ramires) we suffered badly, whilst last season we could call on players squad like Michael Ballack, Juliano Beletti, Deco or even Joe Cole, this time it was Josh McEchran who had to step in or Florent Malouda / Yuri Zhirkov tucking in. It had not been the intention to play Ramires much but he was forced to be playing every game in what should have been a bedding in period. Now whilst Manchester United often adapt to these situations the Chelsea machine is not quite so flexible and is affected a lot more by modifications. It was argued by Ancelotti that we were unlucky with injuries but I disagree. The number of injuries was no more than can be expected at certain times in the season and certainly no more than any other team has suffered this year, the real issue is that we didn’t have the cover and this should have been foreseen at the beginning of the season.
How we would have loved to have been in a situation where we could call on Ballack or Deco to marshal the midfield in Lampard’s absence but alas we chose to let them go. With the small squad comes another issue which relates to both squad size and age, number of games played. Whilst other teams have the luxury of rotation, Chelsea have had to play their best team week in week out with minimal opportunities to rest players, and this may well have been another contributory factor to the drubbing they got at Old Trafford, old players playing lots of games is not a good combination. Giggs plays once every couple of weeks or once a week at the busy end of the season, and he looks fresh for it. When Lampard is fit he plays every minute of every game and whilst he scored on the weekend he had no impact on the game as a whole, the man is still a class act but he needs legs around him to help share the load and that help was not coming from Essien or Mikel. Essien who has suffered from several injuries this year has not been able to find fitness yet and has been forced to play every game ahead of the horribly out of form Mikel, again Ancelotti has been left with no few options due to a small squad.
A small squad can be rectified, it will take some spending but can be fixed, however Chelsea will need to make sure it is young blood they bring in or the issue of an aging squad will still see them falling short. An owner or manager can never be sure when his team will be too old or when players legs will go but it seems that some of the double winning Chelsea team are showing their age. Drogba is no longer the force he once was and only shows flashes of his former self, whilst he also no longer affects matches in the same way other than at set pieces. He reminds me of Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink in his last season at Chelsea, not quite able to get away from players and too often losing possession. Great players need to adapt their game once they lose their pace and I think Drogba is still in the denial stage. Frank Lampard is still able to score goals, and his tally since recovering from injury is testament to that but he no longer has the legs to boss the midfield in big games, he needs young legs around him. Ramires will offer this but the quite frankly lazy Mikel and out of sorts Essien means the once fearsome Chelsea midfield is looking very static at the moment.
Probably the biggest worry for me and a change that has been subtle but nonetheless significant is Ashley Cole. He was controversially named in the PFA team of the year, but this season has seen him lose two yards of pace and absolutely roasted in a foot race with Seamus Coleman and more recently Valencia, this was the man that regularly used to have Cristiano Ronaldo in his pocket, unfortunately this seems it is to be a thing of the past. Errors, such as his blind pass versus Sunderland at home and getting caught on the ball have crept into his game also. One of Chelsea’s biggest attacking strengths last season was Cole and Ivanovic bombing down either flank, however this season has seen Cole getting in those attacking areas less and less.
With Drogba at 33, Lampard 32 and Ashley Cole 30 we have three key players probably having seen their best days, not to mention John Terry at 30 but seemingly with the battle scarred body of a 40 year old. Now I am not suggesting we get rid of all our old players, quite the opposite, these players are part of the reason Chelsea remain a force, it is our experience that sees us regularly finish ahead of Arsenal’s “Kids”, but these players need a rest once in a while and need the support of young legs around them.
Whilst Sunday’s result was the final nail in the coffin Chelsea’s problems have been apparent for a much longer period. Last season Chelsea won the double and whilst most eulogized over their attacking football and impressive goal stats I could see that this was only serving to cover up issues which would come to a head further down the line. The squad was aging and the defence was becoming leaky. Luckily for Chelsea last season Arsenal, Liverpool, and most importantly United were all relatively poor meaning Chelsea could win the title without really having to be that great and with a very low points tally. This should have been the point at which they kicked on, strengthening the team. Instead, the purse strings were tightened and some senior players let go, most notably Michael Ballack, Deco and Joe Cole.
With several young players coming into the squad the focus seems to have been creating a more youthful squad with less dependence on big money signings and splashing the cash. This however only lasted till Christmas when after a hideous run of results Abramovich decided enough was enough and opened the chequebook for his long-term target Torres and the brilliantly erratic David Luiz. Although Torres found the going tough, to put it mildly, Luiz fitted straight in and has combined brilliant displays with more eratic ones but has been largely responsible for kick starting Chelsea’s recent run of 8 wins in 10 premiership games, catapulting the team back up the table and now to second where it looks they will finish. It is the energy of players like Luiz that Chelsea need now, yes he has made mistakes but his energy has been as breath of fresh air in a squad starting to get a little stale.