This season has seen a great change at Chelsea, with their talismanic forward Didier Drogba leaving the club on a high, Mikel Essien being loaned out to Real Madrid, Nicolas Anelka moving on and Florent Malouda being permanently dumped into the reserves.
The Blues revolution, starting with Roberto Di Matteo and now being continued under Rafa Benitez, has not only meant the arrival of new personnel such as Eden Hazard and Oscar, but also a transformation of the club’s traditional Mourinho philosophy to a more speedy and expansive style of play.
With the Class of Mourinho well and truly past their peak, last year’s Champions League and FA Cup successes seemed to be the perfect send off as the team’s overall performances began to turn sour and the desire to move on as a club escalated. Every now and then, there has to be a purge of the Old Guard, in order to allow for the next generation to come through, and one recent criticism of Mourinho during his apparently soon-to-be-over tenure as Real Madrid boss has been his inability to bring to his clubs a method of sourcing and nurturing young talent to break into the starting XI and create some longevity to the first-team’s successes.
The London club’s age policy, in which players over the age of 30 can only be offered a one year extension, has lead to the constant speculation that this season will be a final hurrah for Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole, with the former rumoured to potentially be on his way as early as January. But should the former Premier League champions really be letting their ageing stars leave just yet, or is this rather ruthless transfer policy too dismissive of the Chelsea Old Boys’ importance to the club, or for that matter, the first team?
Although Cole has been linked with a host of European clubs, including Manchester United and Manchester City, which is a testament to the fact he is still arguably the world’s best left-back even though he is beginning to decline as a footballer, there is every chance that he’s hard-balling and holding out for a better contract that would secure his stay in the capital. And similarly, it is hard to believe that Lampard is the type of man to simply accept losing his place in the starting XI. Rafa Benitez has insisted the former England man still has a role to play, at least during the current season, but whether the rumours are true or false, in my opinion, Chelsea are letting their experienced players leave too early.
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There will always be teething problems once members of the Old Guard leave. Despite the fact Chelsea have changed their style this season, they’re still clearly missing Didier Drogba – if not for his rank and file performances, but for the fact that he could always turn it on during the big games despite his age or current form. Of course, as far as investments go, signing Fernando Torres as Drogba’s long-term replacement seemed a smart move at the time, and it is somewhat unlucky it hasn’t worked out for the Spaniard since his move from Liverpool.
But it is not just the Ivorian forward’s abilities the team is missing; it’s his leadership and drive for success. That is my main concern with the seemingly nonchalant attitude towards the future departure of Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard. Apart from John Terry and perhaps Petr Cech, where are the natural leaders in the Chelsea starting XI? Cole isn’t exactly captain material, but his experience, ability, and willingness to take responsibility in defence make him a positive influence, on the pitch at least, on those around him. David Luiz is in many respects the opposite of a leader – he is hardly a sheep but is way too much of an individual to lead a team – and Gary Cahill and Branislav Ivanovich don’t quite have enough quality to let their ability provide an example for the rest of the players, unlike Lampard and Cole.
In midfield, although Lampard may be lacking in pace now that he is 34 years old, and is rather mis-fitting with the quick and expansive style trying to be developed at Chelsea, he still vastly outweighs the rest of the team’s midfielders in terms of experience, and provides an element of level-headedness that they’ve been often missing this season.
In the Premier League, the undisputed management champion is surely Sir Alex Ferguson. I raise this point because Manchester United are the only club to successfully keep their old boys past their best years by giving them the opportunity to adapt their game to suit their age. Furthermore, it has allowed Ferguson to continue his footballing ideology and attitude into the next generation by allowing the likes of Tom Cleverley for example to play alongside Paul Scholes – a man he is expected to eventually replace. The situation resonates at Stamford Bridge. Who better to tutor Ryan Bertrand (dubbed as the next Ashley Cole), than the England left-back himself?
Meanwhile, long-time adversary to Fergie, Arsene Wenger, has been very much troubled by his inability to replace his ageing key men, many of whom he has let leave too early, and is currently paying the price for it with an Arsenal side that have depleted in quality over the past few years. The fact that he’s had to bring back Thierry Henry again this season is evidence enough of how difficult it is to bring through a next generation of talent. The club have never found a back four to succeed the likes of Sol Campbell and Tony Adams, and I can foresee Chelsea having the same problems should Ashley Cole, and in a few years John Terry, move on or retire.
Age is a stigma – you’re only as young as you feel. Frank Lampard is a hard worker on the training pitch, like Ryan Giggs, and surely has a few years left in him, while Ashley Cole isn’t long past his best. Chelsea should use these players, both of whom have been good servants to the club, to bring through the new era at Chelsea, despite being very much a part of the old.
Abramovich has a knack of being impatient with his club, but if he truly wants the next generation of his players to be successful at the last, then he should keep the likes of Cole and Lampard, if not to simply share their words of wisdom on the pitch, but to teach the Blues’ new recruits exactly what it takes to be successful and provide some leadership during what could be a turbulent transition period at Stamford Bridge.