It is no secret that Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich has had his sights set on Champions’ League glory ever since he purchased the club in 2003. The club have come painfully close once, when a fateful slip by John Terry and a miss by Nicolas Anelka in the penalty shoot-out cost them the 2008 crown at the hands of Manchester United. Under Abramovich, Chelsea have spent in excess of £500m on new players, including the likes of Fernando Torres, Juan Mata, Didier Drogba, Andrey Shevchenko, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Michael Essien and Ricardo Carvalho – a select group of signings who have cost the club over £20m each. And still, the greatest prize in club football eludes them.
But the transfer policy and pursuit of success at all costs is having other side-effects at Stamford Bridge. Firstly, Abramovich is going through managers at a fairly prodigious pace. Claudio Ranieri was never the kind of character to survive once the Russian arrived (although the Tinkerman has had a successful time in Italy since he was relieved of his position in London). Following in the trails of Jose Mourinho have been some of the biggest names in football management – Avram Grant, Luis Felipe Scolari, Guus Hiddink, Carlo Ancelotti. All have failed Abramovich on the biggest stage. Andre Villas-Boas is next in line.
Aside from managers, though, there is another footballing demographic suffering from the all-or-nothing approach at Chelsea – the club’s youngsters, who would be forgiven for thinking they have no chance whatsoever of surviving at a club where star players arrive and depart with such bewildering regularity.
The former head of scouting, former Denmark international Frank Arnesen, was brought in from Tottenham in 2005 with a brief to find the best young players in football and build an academy team from them. It can only be assumed that Abramovich felt that the ultimate path to success lay in becoming an ‘English Barcelona’ – a club capable of feeding its senior team with a constantly-renewing flow of youth prodigies. Many more in football would agree with this policy than the Russian’s subsequent financial tour de force, one suspects.
But Arnesen’s efforts seem to be in vain. There are a smattering of his success stories in the Chelsea team of the present – including Salomon Kalou, Florent Malouda and John Obi Mikel – but many of the younger players he unearthed are buried in the reserve teams or out on loan. There’s Gael Kakuta, out on loan at Bolton; Jeffrey Bruma, the gifted young centre-back on loan at Hamburg SV; Patrick van Aanholt, still no closer to breaking into the first team and spending this year at Wigan. The likes of Ben Sahar, Miroslav Stoch and Scott Sinclair have grown tired and moved on to pastures new, where they are flourishing. Defenders Michael Mancienne and Slobodan Rajkovic are also at Hamburg, but on permanent deals. It is no coincidence that Hamburg hired a new sporting director a year ago – one Frank Arnesen.
The current crop of youngsters at Chelsea is spearheaded by Lukaku, Daniel Sturridge and the perennial ‘prospect’ Josh McEachran. But this summer, Chelsea brought in Mata and Raul Meireles; Torres arrived in January. No Chelsea manager can afford the time to blood youngsters and wait for them to flourish as the more secure Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger and David Moyes have done so successfully. For a Chelsea manager, looking two or three years down the line is a futile exercise, for without immediate success, they won’t survive to reap the rewards of what they sow.
Petr Cech admits in this interview that Chelsea are “obsessed… but in a good way” with the Champions’ League. He was half-right. They are obsessed. But that obsession may be holding them back.