Rafa Benitez, but it was the Spaniard’s cautionary words earlier this campaign that highlighted the real problem at Stamford Bridge; a lack of depth in the squad that doesn’t fail to hide the fact that when it comes to analysing their summer transfer dealings, that they simply got their priorities all wrong from the start.
Under Roberto Di Matteo, the club finished sixth in the Premier League last season, five points adrift of Tottenham in fourth place, but further close inspection of how the club’s domestic form seriously tailed off after Andre Villas-Boas’ removal as head coach was temporarily postponed due to their triumphs in the FA Cup and in the Champions League, finally getting that monkey off their backs. Of course, Di Matteo ultimately lost his job in somewhat ridiculous circumstances back in November, really going to show that he was still little more than a stop-gap measure and caretaker boss in everything but name, but we shouldn’t forget that this current Chelsea side is far from the finished article, even if they are still prone to imploding under Benitez’s reign late on in games this term.
A title challenge looked on the cards after Chelsea started the season in excellent form, whereas in reality, a relatively kind fixture list saw them start with straightforward games against Wigan, Reading and Newcastle before feeling their way into the league. It always looked to be a castle built on soft foundations.
Nevertheless, the club’s status as reigning European champions allowed them the freedom to dip their toes into the transfer market with some success, beating both Manchester City and Manchester United to the signature of Eden Hazard and performing another coup with the acquisition of Brazilian starlet Oscar, and while it would be folly to criticise these deals in isolation, they represent an underlying pattern that has held the club back.
Along with Cesar Azpilicueta, all three have been huge successes in their debut seasons in England, adapting to the rigours and demands of the top flight with consummate ease and allowing the team’s talisman, Juan Mata, more freedom to perform to the best of his abilities. Coupled with Victor Moses’ smooth transition and aside from the tragic misstep of recruiting an injury-prone player of potential in Marko Marin and it would seem strange to lambast the club’s dealings, but the areas it left them short in and the overall policy are the main issues here rather then the players themselves.
The fixture congestion around the festive period saw Chelsea play nine games in both December and January, leading Benitez to claim: “You analyse the players who have played every game, there aren’t many players here. They’d been playing fewer players. I’m not here to criticise, but that’s the reality.
“They’d played so many games, two a week and massive games in the Champions League, the players were getting tired. You can’t give them a rest, either, because there’s no time.”
When you factor in that the club sanctioned the sale of Raul Meireles and allowed the likes of Romelu Lukaku, Michael Essien, Kevin De Bruyne and Yossi Benayoun to spend time out on loan during various spells, many of which are set to run right through until the end of the campaign and it seems that many of the squad’s ills are self-inflicted, with the African Cup of Nations’ departures of Moses and John Obi Mikel reducing squad numbers even further at a crucial and busy time.
It seems that while the Champions League triumph represented an opportunity to cast their net wider in the search of long-term creative talent of potential world-class ability, like a kid in a candy store, owner Roman Abramovich and chief lieutenant Michael Emenalo appear to have forgotten the nuts and bolts of what a truly title-winning side looks like. This has seen David Luiz shifted further forward into a central midfield role to cover for the lack of depth there, while Fernando Torres has struggled up top all term until the club finally brought in Demba Ba during the January transfer window.
There are so many questions that need to be asked of the top brass – why was no back-up pursued for Torres in the summer when it was clear that Daniel Sturridge’s role at the club was becoming increasingly marginalised? Why were two central midfielders allowed to leave the club for the campaign and not replaced? Since when did forsaking substance for style become a mandate for anything other than a deeply flawed and inconsistent side? There were so many needless risks taken in the pursuit of an altogether more attractive Chelsea side, that they’ve come at the expense of a more rounded and capable squad in terms of depth and quality in several key areas.
Nevertheless, as I said at the start, while progress has been slow at times, the club still look well on course to return to the promised land of the Champions League via their final league position, which at the end of everything was the number one priority at the start of the season. What constitutes success has become distorted and expectations have been continually moved along the way, but this is a side in transition that has looked criminally low on numbers to sustain themselves through one of the most testing fixture schedules in recent memory.
The vast majority of the club’s summer dealings have been successful from both an individual and team viewpoint, with both Hazard and Oscar absolutely superb at times, but they’ve merely papered over the cracks of a creative shortfall that was never really there in the first place. As campaigns go, this will go down as an unfulfilled one predominantly for self-inflicted reasons and the lack of a coherent long-term plan has been frightening. That sort of strategy, as Chelsea have proven in recent years, can sometimes work with managers, but when it comes to a team unit, such a scatter-gun approach leaves a lot to be desired.