Raced out of the traps – Chelsea carried their excellent goalscoring form from the end of last season right into the beginning of this season and the signs were starting to look ominous for their title challengers. They won their opening 5 league games, scoring a staggering 21 goals in the process and conceding just once – all the signs were pointing towards a successful defence of their title after the side managed to overcome a decidedly lacklustre pre-season and Charity Shield defeat to rivals Man Utd with aplomb.
The Slump – It is extremely rare that a title is decided as early on as November. They say the crucial festive period makes and break sides challenging for top honours, with the close succession of games often cited as a reason for underperformance, however, the wheels began to come off a lot earlier in the campaign for Ancelotti’s Chelsea than even the biggest cynic could have envisaged. The warning signs began to flash when Chelsea were inexplicably torn apart by an in-form Sunderland 3-0 at Stamford Bridge. By now, the club had already lost twice to Man City and Liverpool and there were signs that rather than merely a blip, that this Chelsea side were beginning to crack. Their next 5 games rendered just 3 points after defeats to Birmingham and Arsenal and draws against Spurs, Newcastle and Everton ensured that the club was well and truly undergoing a crisis of confidence. In the same pivotal 6 game period Man Utd picked up 13 points. The damage had been done and for all intents and purposes, the lead became irreversible.
Patchy big game record – Last season Chelsea prided themselves on a superb record against the big sides and those closest around them; they achieved a double over Man Utd, Liverpool and Arsenal and beat Spurs once and rather less favourably picked up just one point from four fixtures against Everton and Man City. That left them with a record of 22 points from 12 crucial fixtures, a fantastic record it has to be said. This term however, from the same set of fixtures the club picked up just 14 points. They were beaten twice by Liverpool, they picked up just one point from perennial bogey team Everton and were beaten once apiece by Man Utd, Man City and Arsenal. That’s 8 points less than last season and with the club losing the title to Man Utd this campaign by 9 points, their record against the other big boys proved the difference.
Big Players fail to step up – To compare once more again to last season’s title triumph, of course after a season such as Chelsea’s this year, they are not going to fare too favourably. As a collective they failed to live up to the high expectations they set themselves last year, but individually too they fell way short of what‘s required. Frank Lampard was at times superhuman last season, but injuries took their toll in him this season and for the first time in his career he struggled for form and endured his worst season in a Chelsea shirt to date. Michael Essien too looked a shadow of the midfield destroyer of yesteryear after returning from injury. Didier Drogba’s form was also patchy after being laid low mid-season by a bout of malaria. Whereas last term the side were fortunate to stay relatively injury free, this term they were ravaged by injuries at times and rather understandably given the circumstances, many star names failed to perform. Whereas last season and this season, Chelsea and Man Utd’s success was built upon each respective club’s strength in depth and use of rotating their squads, Chelsea’s lack of back-up options were cruelly exposed at several junctures in the season. Speaking of which.
Lack of squad depth costs club dear – There was a noticeable shift in transfer policy at Stamford Bridge over the summer, one that has slowly but surely been in the offing for quite some time – yet this season is the best and most obvious example of such. Chairman Roman Abramovich had begun to reign in the budget year on year with the emphasis moved towards making the club somewhat self-sufficient with the emphasis therefore placed on integrating youth team members into the first-team squad. In the summer, experienced faces such as Michael Ballack, Deco, Juliano Belleti, Joe Cole and crucially Ricardo Carvalho were all allowed to depart. Ramires and Yossi Benayoun were the only players brought in and the onus was placed heavily on the likes of Borini, Van Aanholt, Kakuta, Bruma and McEachran to step up to the plate. This proved too much for some and they were loaned out as the pressure of the club’s terrible slump in form saw them granted fewer and fewer opportunities to make their mark. A change in tack in January saw big money arrivals Fernando Torres and David Luiz drafted in to mixed success – a quite humiliating comedown for Abramovich. It was clear last season in what should have been the last great hurrah for many of the squad that significant investment was required over the summer; instead now the club has a major rebuilding process on it’s hands from hereon in.
The two Elephants in the room – Carlo Ancelotti is familiar with working underneath overbearing Chairman from his time at Juventus with the Agnelli family and at AC Milan with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi cracking the proverbial whip. Some say Ancelotti’s submissive character in the past stood him in good stead with the Russian oligarch at Stamford Bridge; a yes man of sorts. This is best demonstrated by two crucial decisions that went some way to shaping Chelsea’s season; to decisions that would have prompted some managers to have walked given the circumstances and ceding of their authority – firstly the needless sacking of Ray Wilkins which went some way to destabilising the squad and secondly the forced nature of the Fernando Torres signing, a Chairman’s signing in every sense of the word. Abramovich has previous with this after forcibly moving for Andrei Shevchenko under Jose Mourinho’s tenure at the helm and to terrible results – the omens are not good for Torres. The Spaniard’s form for Liverpool had been poor prior to his arrival in West London as the hangover from a long World Cup and a number of niggling injuries began to take its toll on his body. But his form was not the only issue, his arrival forced Ancelotti’s hand in a number of games as the pressure to play the Chairman’s £50m became evident. Routinely hauled off, Ancelotti seemed uncertain as to how to get the best out of Torres; understandable considering that he hadn’t planned for his arrival. No combination seemed to work and it wreaked havoc with a solid system as the Italian went in search – mid-season it should be noted – about making a noticeable shift in both the sides style of play and their tried and tested system. Rather unsurprisingly it had a destabilising effect on Ancelotti and the rest of the side as the goals failed to flow. Wilkins sacking is still shrouded in mystery and this time a coach in the form of former Chelsea chief scout Michael Emenalo was thrust upon Ancelotti at Abramovich’s behest. The club undoubtedly remains a plaything for the Russian and these two critical moves had an overwhelmingly negative effect on the club and made Ancelotti’s position untenable.
Goal Shy – Last term Chelsea struck a truly staggering 103 goals. It would by considered nye on impossible to better or even replicate that form, yet by their standards, with the attacking players that they have at their disposal, their return this term of just 69 goals certainly points to a lack of proficiency in front of goal. The well documented Torres debacle coupled with injuries the likes of Lampard and Drogba of course played a significant factor. Nicolas Anelka looks most susceptible to being moved on in the summer now though after an indifferent season that saw him register just 6 strikes in 32 appearances. It’s clear that the club requires a new approach in terms of it’s attacking play. Last season Chelsea bludgeoned teams into submission through sheer force of will, with their powerful approach at times overwhelming opponents – yet with the quality and overall level of defending certainly better this term than last, Chelsea’s lack of creativity from midfield and guile up top has meant they have often been found wanting. The side’s reliance on Lampard’s goals has been well and truly exposed and in order to lighten the load on the England midfielder, expect to see the club make a move for a creative link man this summer, which Anelka likely to leave via the back door at the same time.
No repeat of Wembley heroics – Chelsea have a fantastic record in domestic cup competitions and over the last five years – they’ve won the FA Cup final three times and the League Cup once, also losing to Spurs once in the final in that short space of time. However, this season the club didn’t fare too well in domestic cup competitions. An unexpected 4-3 defeat at Stamford Bridge to a depleted Newcastle side at the third round stage way back in September pointed to a troubled season. In the FA Cup, the competition that Chelsea have treated as their natural birthright the past few years, they were unceremoniously dumped out of the competition on penalties in the fourth round, again at Stamford Bridge, this time in a fourth round replay against their bogey team Everton. A cup run could have helped provide welcome relief away from the side’s indifferent league form, while at the same time easing the pressure on Ancelotti to succeed in Abramovich’s quest to win the Champions League. To put it a different way, if Chelsea had finished the season second in the league and with another FA Cup or to a lesser extent League Cup trophy under their belt, would Ancelotti’s services have been dispatched with quite so quickly?
Always the bridesmaid – Roman Abramovich’s burning desire above all else as Chelsea Chairman has been to get his hands on the Champions League. Indeed, the main reasoning behind Ancelotti’s appointment in the first place was in part down to his proven record in the competition having won it twice while manager of AC Milan. Chelsea were given a fairly straightforward route in Europe this season until they faced Man Utd in the quarter-finals, their first real test and with it, their European adventure was brought to an abrupt halt. Suffice to say that from thereon in, Ancelotti became a dead man walking. A strong European showing could have been the Italian’s saving grace, instead, after a disappointing exit to a superior Man Utd side, it proved to be nothing more than the final nail in the coffin for Ancelotti‘s time at Chelsea.
You’re Fired – Please forgive the crude Apprentice related pun, and let us return to the matter at hand. Ancelotti was ruthlessly sacked at the end of the season (some reports even state that it was done in the tunnel just an hour after the final league game – classy) for presiding over Chelsea’s worst season under the Abramovich era. But how much blame can be solely attributed to just one man? By my reckoning, Ancelotti was given a bum deal. He won the double in his first season, without spending a penny, with a squad not of his own making, in a new country with a foreign language and all with a degree of panache. To put it quite simply, a marvellous achievement. In all honesty, no manager has been given either the time nor money to truly make their mark on this Chelsea squad since Jose Mourinho left the club. Sure, mistakes were made, most notably the complete and utter failure to successfully integrate new signing Fernando Torres into the side. But, and it’s a big but, Ancelotti was forced to work within the strict confines and conditions set out by his Chairman. He took over an ageing squad in need of reinvestment and delivered the double in his first season. Money needed to be spent last summer to keep the club moving forward, instead it only served to provide Abramovich with a reason to reign in the budget further and instead we were treated to two reactionary signing in the January transfer window. Ancelotti’s departure signals the end of the 8th manager in 7 years since Abramovich took over the club. Stability and continuity breed success; until the chopping and changing comes to an end at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea will never be able to undergo a period of sustained success. Until the Chairman stops treating the club like a plaything and displays a little patience and trust in the man that he’s put in charge, Chelsea are destined to always fall just short of Europe’s elite. What world-class manager in their right mind would move to Chelsea under such strict, pressurised conditions now?
Arbitrary Marks out of ten – 5/10 – A poor season by all accounts and one that many associated with the club will want to forget in a hurry. Chelsea’s form at the beginning of the campaign was marvellous, as was it from February to April where out of nowhere the club managed to drag themselves back into the title race until defeat at Old Trafford put paid to those slim hopes. Investment is what’s required most. Pure and simple. But it needs to be done with a coherent plan and the plan needs to be laid out by a manager that knows what he’s doing, rather than a Chairman that thinks he knows what he’s doing. A lack of squad depth cost the club dearly this season and this issue needs to be rectified next term. Chelsea are still undeniably one of the favourites next season to launch an assault on the league title. They are still a club boasting some fantastic talent and they still have that strong mental strength and winning mentality within the squad. But, a lot depends on the appointment of their next coach and they face as pivotal summer as there has been since Abramovich’s time at the club.