- As the Italian manager aims on adjusting the club's style of play and mentality, Roman Abramovich's leadership, or lack thereof, causes a few more headaches at Stamford Bridge.
These are worrying times for Chelsea. In another age, at another club, this could be written off as a season of transition, but there is no such thing for a Champions League challenger in the modern world, no such thing at Stamford Bridge. The days when managers were sacked for failing to win the league may have gone, but the calm that follows the endless turmoil of the past decade may not be exactly what the club needs.
Chelsea recently has had the leakiest dressing-room in the Premier League and the least leaky boardroom. That’s one of the reasons why the life expectancy of a Chelsea manager since Roman Abramovich took over has been so brief. No grievance, it seems, can ever go unreported, so as soon as a manager begins to lose the faith of his players, everybody knows about it, amplifying situations that at another club may ass almost unnoticed. At the same time, nobody can legitimately claim to know what Abramovich intends.
There are certain facts that have emerged this year, though. Abramovich has shifted his official residence from Switzerland back to Russia. He has taken Israeli citizenship. There is an obvious policy of retrenchment that has been in place at Chelsea for perhaps three or four years. Plans to expand the stadium have been abandoned. That shouldn’t necessarily be taken to mean that Abramovich is thinking of quitting Chelsea, but it does at least raise the question.
Then there was the odd case of the sacking of Antonio Conte. Everybody knew form the spring that he was on his way out, yet official confirmation of his dismissal came so late that here was briefly a real possibility that Conte would be contractually obliged to turn up to take the first day of pre-season training. Perhaps that was nothing more than a negotiation over his severance package, but it added to the sense that Chelsea has become almost an afterthought for Abramovich.
What is certainly true is that the free-spending days of the past are over; now there is a concerted effort to make money through the academy and exploitation of the loan system, while the trading in the likes of Mohammed Salah and Nemanja Matic has suggested a determination to, if not make a profit on transfers then at least to cash in on assets if a good price is offered. And that should make the new manager Maurizio Sarri very nervous.
Thibaut Courtois's exit, leaving for Real Madrid, forced Chelsea to react as it purchased the talented Kepa Arrizabalaga from Athletic Bilbao for $91 million - a record fee for a goalkeeper. In addition Mateo Kovacic, forgotten in Madrid, headed to Stamford Bridge on a temporary basis. Sarri most likely welcomed these transactions seeing as he recently said he only wanted players who were fully committed to the club. Courtois was in the final year of his contract, and in that respect the inquiry from Real Madrid seemed attractive. These moves, however, were reactive as opposed to instinctive and it's now up to the manager to figure out how they fit in his plans.
Then there was the issue of Eden Hazard and Willian. Willian was the subject of speculation linking him with both Barcelona and Manchester United, and returned late from holiday after a mix-up with his passport, but following talks with Sarri he said he wanted to stay. Hazard, repeatedly linked with Real Madrid and his insistences he wanted to stay at Chelsea had notably waned by the end of last season, but for now, the Belgian star is happy in London.
Like Conte, Sarri likes to play a hard-pressing game, but that’s where the similarities end. Conte was far more conservative and far more defensive in outlook, and favoured a back three rather than Sarri’s 4-3-3. Adapting to a manager as idiosyncratic as Sarri will take time: that is not something Chelsea managers have habitually been afforded, but if he is to be asked to bring success without the sort of investment that has gone before, patience is essential.
Another major signing which arrived earlier this summer was a key one. Jorginho, who was snaffled from under Manchester City’s noses, was the centerpiece of Sarri’s Napoli, creating the play from deep, and while it’s not entirely clear how he and N’Golo Kante slot together, Chelsea’s midfield could be formidable, with the added inclusion of the aforementioned Kovacic.
But even if there are no further departures later in the season, there are deficiencies everywhere. Alvaro Morata never looked comfortable last season, while Olivier Giroud has effectively become non-goalscoring center-forward, managing only three after joining Chelsea in January to go with his dry (if effective) World Cup. Tammy Abraham is back from his loan at Swansea but is very inexperienced.
As Conte’s first season proved, things can suddenly and unexpectedly click, but this looks like being a difficult season at Stamford Bridge, one in which few things are certain.