Tuesday November 23rd, 2010

So Carlo Ancelotti is staying at Chelsea, for now at least, and with the club sitting top of the Premier League talk of crisis at Stamford Bridge feels slightly hysterical. Even if there was no substance to the reports -- strongly denied -- that Ancelotti was ready to quit on Sunday evening, though, something is going on behind the scenes, a lead that stood at five points three weeks ago has disappeared and the weakness of the squad's structure has been exposed.

In the latter days of Jose Mourinho's reign, through the tenures of Avram Grant and Luiz Felipe Scolari, Chelsea was a club beset by internal politicking. Just as the Kremlinologists would study the Politburo's seating plan to try to divine how the power was shifting among the Soviet hierarchy, so every breath of Chelsea's nomenklatura would be sifted for meaning. The jovial calmness of Guus Hiddink and Ancelotti's equally laid-back approach ended that, but the sudden sacking of the assistant coach Ray Wilkins two weeks ago has seemingly ushered in another age of intrigue.

It has been suggested that senior players felt Wilkins was not as good a coach as they would have liked, but that was never his primary purpose. As a former Chelsea player, he was a link with the past, a sounding board and an ambassador for the club, a cool head with a solid grounding in the English game. Even if it had been decided that a new coach was needed, there was something needlessly brutal about the manner of his dismissal, tapping him on the shoulder at halftime during a youth-team game at the club's training complex at Cobham.

Ancelotti has insisted he did not instigate Wilkins's departure, and it is hard not to read significance into the fact that he calls his former assistant as "Ray," but refers to his replacement, the former opposition-scout Michael Emenalo by his surname. Besides which, if the concern of Wilkins's coaching was the issue, Emenalo is an odd appointment given he doesn't have any coaching badges and so cannot lead training sessions. In fact, the last team Emenalo coached was the Tucson Soccer Academy's U-12 girls team in 2007. The suspicion, understandably, is that the Nigerian is there largely to report back to the owner, Roman Abramovich.

For now the reasons behind Wilkins's departure remain a mystery, and while it seems far-fetched to claim, as some have, that it is the absence of his technical input that has led to the defeats to Sunderland and Birmingham City, the incident has had a destabilizing effect. The problems at the club, though, run deeper than that, as became apparent after the defeat to Sunderland.

It wasn't so much that they were beaten, or even the comprehensiveness of the defeat -- although that would have been worry enough -- it was the excuse that was offered afterward that Chelsea had been without some key players through injury, notably John Terry, Frank Lampard and Michael Essien. With Alex also injured, Ancelotti had been forced to play the 33-year-old right-back Paulo Ferreira alongside Branislav Ivanovic at center back. Add to that the long-term absence of Yossi Benayoun, and Chelsea also lacked a creator from the bench who could come on and add a dash of flair.

All of which is fair enough. It would be absurd to claim that those five players are not major losses. Except that Sunderland was missing Darren Bent, its top scorer last season and so far this. And John Mensah, its best center back last season. And Fraizer Campbell, David Meyler and Anton Ferdinand, all regulars last season. They might not be such glamorous names as Chelsea's absent five, but in the context of Sunderland's squad, they are just as significant. Yet Sunderland was able to adapt in a way that Chelsea could not. It would be preposterous to say Sunderland has a better squad than Chelsea, but it may be that it is better balanced.

Terry has played for years with injuries. It is less than two months since Ancelotti said his body had been through too much and that he would never expect his captain to take painkilling injections to play again. Yet before the game against Fulham a two weeks ago, Terry was again being dosed up to get him through one further game. Alex put off knee surgery to play against Birmingham City on Saturday. With the size of modern squads, clubs should not be expecting such sacrifices of players, but Chelsea has been forced to demand them because it simply has no other center backs. If Ancelotti does not trust the 20-year-old Jeffrey Bruma, which he apparently doesn't given the Dutch defender has started only the League Cup defeat to Newcastle United this season, then selling Ricardo Carvalho to Real Madrid and failing to replace him appears a major strategic error.

It would not be the first time Chelsea under Abramovich had been left with inadequate cover at center back, and the consequences then were dramatic. The beginning of the end for Jose Mourinho at Stamford Bridge came in a tiny overheated room off the tunnel at Wycombe Wanderers's Adams Park in January 2007. Chelsea had just drawn a League Cup tie 1-1, and injuries had forced Mourinho to field a center back pairing of Paulo Ferreira and Michael Essien.

With journalists crammed around him, and steam from a nearby tea-urn adding to the general fug of sweat and tension, Mourinho raged about not having been allowed to sign Tal Ben Haim from Bolton Wanderers as cover. It seemed a typical Mourinho ploy, and there was widespread disbelief that the Israeli didn't arrive in the three weeks that remained of the transfer window, despite a price of under £2.5 million. Quite why has never properly been explained, but it was widely assumed to be Abramovich making a point. Ben Haim eventually came on a free transfer that June, but by then the league title had been lost, and Abramovich's relationship with Mourinho was fractured.

Abramovich's desire to turn Chelsea into a business that breaks even is well known, and with Uefa's regulations on financial fair play to come into force next season, his ambition is not merely an aspiration but something approaching a necessity. There have been unconfirmed reports that new signings will not be paid more than £80,000 a week. With bonuses that may be a misleading figure, but it is still put into context by the fact that Terry is on more than double that.

The other part of the program is to trim the squad, and the cuts of the summer were radical. Miroslav Stoch, Michael Ballack, Joe Cole, Nemanja Matic, Deco, Scott Sinclair, Franco di Santo, Slobodan Rajkovic and Carvalho all left, while the only arrivals were Benayoun, Ramires and the 17-year-old Czech defender Tomas Kalas, who was immediately loaned back to Sigma Olomouc. Kalas' signing is representative of a desire to focus more on youth development, and significant investment has been made in the academy.

There is talk that there is a crop of talent ready to emerge, and the 17-year-old midfielder Josh McEachran has certainly looked promising in his four substitute appearances in the league. Yet the only player under the age of 23 to start a Premier League game for Chelsea this season was Gael Kakuta, who was substituted at halftime in his one appearance, the goalless draw away to Aston Villa. That suggests the youth either isn't good enough, or isn't ready yet. Given Drogba is 32, Nicolas Anelka 31, Lampard 32 and starting to pick up the sort of injury he was once famous for avoiding, and Terry a battered 29, that is reason for concern. (Kakuta offers further reason: Chelsea's eagerness to sign him earned them a transfer ban subsequently overturned on appeal, but he is out of contract in the summer and apparently reluctant to sign a new deal).

Transition is the hardest thing to manage in football, which is why Sir Alex Ferguson's achievements at Manchester United are so striking. This Chelsea generation is coming to an end, but the next one doesn't seem quite ready to replace it. Add the fallout from Wilkins's departure and if there is not a crisis at Chelsea there is certainly a sense of unease.

Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England.

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