For years, one of the favourite pastimes of Chelsea fans was laughing at Arsenal. As the Blues reeled in trophy after trophy, their London neighbours would find new ways of looking good while achieving nothing. Style over substance. Image above outcome. There was no consequence for the systems or personnel that caused their failure. Only a misplaced stubbornness to persist with a flawed premise despite all the evidence to the contrary.
Chelsea fans could scoff because they knew their team would never succumb to such notions of vanity. They knew their team was blessed not only with supremely talented individuals but with the ability to tough out difficult situations. The very DNA of the club in the 21st century imbued the squad with resilience and mental fortitude, with physicality and pragmatism. The very traits that Arsenal lacked.
Fast forward a few years and Chelsea themselves are turning into a laughing stock. A flat-track bully that can make hay against the division’s whipping boys but fall apart when faced with a semblance of quality or organisation. Sunday’s 6-0 humiliation at Manchester City was the fourth consecutive away defeat since the turn of the year and the fourth consecutive away match in which Chelsea have failed to find the back of the net. It’s a team that currently cannot defend and cannot attack. They might be enjoying the lion’s share of possession in the majority of matches but that matters little when the results are so negative.
In isolation, the drubbing at the Etihad Stadium could be put down to just being one of those days. It could be pointed out that individual errors precipitated all six goals, that the opposition was especially clinical, that a lack of defensive cohesion was ruthlessly exploited. Defeats happen, even big ones.
Unfortunately, the match was not an isolated event. It wasn’t even the only thrashing that they have suffered in the last fortnight.
Individual errors in defence have become the one consistent element of this team and the fact that they seem to happen every week reflects badly upon the coaching staff. True, Maurizio Sarri cannot be blamed for a solitary poor pass from a midfielder, a defender’s momentary loss of concentration or a goalkeeper misjudging the trajectory of a shot. But if they have become the norm rather than the exception then it hints at a worrying culture being fostered behind the scenes. Whether that is due to a lack of accountability, an absence of leadership or something even less tangible cannot be known without being privy to dressing room conversations or training ground drills. What it does strongly suggest, however, is that Maurizio Sarri is unable to organise an effective defence.
One truism often cited is that attack is the best form of defence and that is clearly what Sarri is trying to implement at Chelsea. That is certainly noble and in theory it sounds fantastic. The problem arises when the attack is almost entirely impotent. If a team is struggling to score at one end, it must make absolutely certain that it locks things down at the other. Instead, Chelsea have that most unenvious of combinations in being both porous at the back and blunt up front while lacking any sort of backbone through the middle. In the process they have lost the identity they forged in the noughties, now favouring ideology over practicality. Populism , it seems, has seeped from politics into football.
Some might say that it is the players to blame for the current malaise at Chelsea and there is no doubt that they must bear substantial culpability. David Luiz’s scatter-brained defending in the 4-0 hammering at Bournemouth, Marcos Alonso switching off for the opener against Man City and the usually dependable Cesar Azpilicueta directly contributing to the concession of two goals against the same opponent are just a few glaring examples.
But isn’t it strange that a team that can boast the genius of Eden Hazard amid a smattering of other highly gifted and decorated forwards cannot score goals? Isn’t it just a little curious that a back line featuring the most expensive goalkeeper in history and a superb natural defender in Azpilicueta as well as the controlled aggression of Antonio Rudiger simply disintegrates whenever placed under pressure?
You might think that after facing familiar issues on a weekly basis there might be an acceptance that something needs to change yet Chelsea play the same way every week, with pretty much the same personnel and the same in-game substitutions. Looking at the other managers among the so-called “big six”, all of them have shown the ability to tinker with their team when things aren’t working. Sometimes it is subtle and sometimes it is more radical but changes are made to suit the environment.
Chelsea only need to cast their minds back three weeks to see at first hand an example of positively impactful in-game management. After being 2-0 down at half time in the second leg of the Carabao Cup semi final and seeing his team being overrun, Mauricio Pochettino drastically enhanced his Tottenham side’s fortunes at Stamford Bridge by switching to three at the back and introducing width to stretch Chelsea across the pitch, They scored almost instantly and were a persistent threat until the final whistle. The Blues might have ultimately won on penalties but a shift in approach at the break almost turned the tie in Spurs’ favour.
There is nothing wrong in admitting your mistakes and doing something about it. But the first lesson of recovery is accepting that you have a problem in the first place. If Sarri can be brave and honest enough to allow some introspection and proceed to address the failings of himself and his team then he can avoid the fate of so many of his predecessors. If he can relent and adapt in the short term to scramble a place in next year’s Champions League then he can spend the summer moulding the squad and its playing style to his image in a bid for longer term success.
If he chooses not to and Chelsea continue to be eviscerated every time they venture from Stamford Bridge, then he can look forward to a curt and decisive phone call in the near future. Chelsea’s team might currently resemble Arsene Wenger’s second decade at Arsenal and be trapped in a merry-go-round of disappointment but, unlike the Gunners, the club’s top brass are not going to be nearly so accommodating.