Crises at Stamford Bridge are nothing new. In fact, for the vast majority of Roman Abramovich’s tutelage Chelsea have shifted from one to another, seemingly never more than a handful of disappointing results away from taking dreaded steps along a disastrous downward spiral.
But even amid their rich tapestry of tabloid exposées, shock hirings and firings, overpriced signings and title defence capitulations, which have rendered relentless chaos the only true source of continuity, the current moment feels amongst the most confusing – and potentially the most damaging – of Roman’s trophy-laden reign. For one reason or another, every layer of the club is enduring some form of uncertain turmoil right now.
Indeed, cut a cross section along Chelsea football club and the new surface will show you question marks scratched over every department. There have been occasional glimpses of positivity this summer – reports of a big-money move for Robert Lewandowski, suggestions that Zinedine Zidane could be the man to take over from Antonio Conte – but pretty much everything else creates an image lacking clarity, insinuating an owner who usually exudes so much of it is starting to lose control over the circus he once built.
Let’s start exclusively with matters on the pitch. Few expect Conte to still be Chelsea’s manager by the time next season starts, but it’s not wholly clear who will replace him or why it’s taking so long to confirm his departure either. The assumption is that it comes down to financial settlement, and that appears to be affecting both ends of the problem.
Chelsea are reluctant to pay not only Conte’s compensation, but also refused to meet the release clause in Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli contract – inevitably leading to doubts over whether he will be the man who gets the job or if the Blues will eventually turn to a cheaper, less problematic alternative. In some quarters, another interim spell for Avram Grant has even been mentioned. What that quite says about a club that lifted the Premier League title just two seasons ago is a matter for another day.
But that laboriousness in bringing change to the dugout has inevitably impacted Chelsea’s ability to be proactive so far in this transfer window, which only highlights the doubts lingering above this team. Perhaps the most significant of those is whether it truly possesses the star-studded quality and strength in depth to compete for the title, but interlinked with that are the futures of perhaps Chelsea’s two biggest names.
Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois’ contract expires next summer, so plenty of clubs will be interested in acquiring him in this one, and Eden Hazard – easily Chelsea’s most important commodity – has strongly suggested in public he’ll only put pen to paper once he sees who arrives and who leaves the club in this transfer window.
Like much else at Chelsea, Hazard’s position on his future only generates greater uncertainty. But that position is more than justified; Hazard’s never been further above the level of the rest of the team than he was last season, and his concerns only epitomise the frustrations of many supporters, who can’t quite understand why the club often overlook the chance to build on momentum by lowing their sights in the transfer market.
Furthermore, because of the managerial situation and because of how underwhelming Chelsea were last season, so many questions can be posed to this Blues squad. Will Alvaro Morata and Tiemoue Bakayoko be given another season to prove themselves? Will Gary Cahill finally be replaced as captain? Will Olivier Giroud’s contract be allowed to wind down? And will Chelsea even continue playing with a back three next term?
Right now, there’s no real answer to those questions or even a strong insinuation of one – the players don’t know who they’ll be playing for and in what system, and potential signings don’t know who they’ll be working under or why.
It’s not just the first team either; youth level is the only area where Chelsea have been marvellously consistent in recent years – their constant yo-yoing in and out of the Premier League title race juxtaposed by 15 U18s honours since the start of the 2009/10 season – but with Jody Morris joining Frank Lampard at Derby County after serving as U18s boss for four years, we don’t know who will replace the one-time Chelsea midfielder or whether the Blues will maintain that kind of triumph under his successor. All we do know is that the position’s currently vacant and whoever takes it will have big boots to fill.
But the biggest points of the confusion and the gravest causes for concern actually rest with Abramovich himself, which is perhaps why the question marks regarding other aspects of the club – the managers, the players and the youth team – that are by no means unusual for any Premier League team at this time of year, suddenly seem so potentially severe.
Not allowed to work in the UK due to political tensions with Russia, there’s an ambiguity over how much influence Abramovich can legally have over the club right now, whether that’s affected Chelsea’s ability to hire a new manager and make new signings, and what that actually means for the west London outfit’s future.
An offer to buy Abramovich out has already been turned down, but the idea must be on his mind; the decision to halt the building process on Stamford Bridge – another source of genuine apprehension – is a telling sign, suggesting the feeling of uncertainty has crept into Abramovich’s psyche too. For an owner whose identity is built largely around cut-throat sackings, postponing anything indefinitely represents a marked seachange.
All levels combined, it feels like Chelsea are stuck in quicksand right now; they can’t move forward and the basis their affluent era has been built upon – Abramovich’s personal fortune – is starting to fall away from under them.
After last season, there’s so much to be done at Stamford Bridge, but a quick look around the Premier League shows you how far behind they already are.
Tottenham arrested any uncertainty over Pochettino’s future by handing him a new contract, Arsenal have appointed Arsene Wenger’s successor, Liverpool have signed Fabinho and are on the verge of officially welcoming Naby Keita and Manchester United have already sewn up a deal for Fred.
Chelsea, on the other hand, are frozen still and it’s not quite clear which clog needs to start moving again first to get the rest of the club back in motion. And the longer that uncertainty goes on for, the likelier Chelsea will find themselves enduring something of a permanent paralysis.
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