Why is it always like this at Chelsea?
It’s a well-known phenomenon of the Roman Abramovich era that every once in a while the team just kind of decides to give up. It’s a pattern that dates back from when José Mourinho first left the club in 2007, though for the most recent crop of players—the Eden Hazard era, let’s call it—the seeds were probably planted during Mourinho’s second stint in the 2015-16 season. That year, Chelsea followed up a title-winning campaign with a disastrous 10th-place finish that saw Mourinho sacked after his squad lost nine of their first 16 Premier League games. Mourinho moved to Manchester United and continued his late-career streak of flameouts, so that massive drop-off from the Chelsea players could perhaps be forgiven—especially when Antonio Conte showed up and piloted the team back to a Premier League title in 2017.
But the intense, demanding Conte quickly lost the support of the owner and his players as well. While the drop-off in 2017-18 to fifth place wasn’t quite as bad as the previous post-trophy slump, the manager’s freeze-out of star striker Diego Costa contributed to paltry goal-scoring numbers and a finish that came short of Champions League qualification. Conte was forced out after just two seasons in charge and was replaced by Maurizio Sarri last summer. Were Sarri to follow in the footsteps of his most immediate pair or predecessors, one would expect him to at least win a title before losing the respect of his charges and the club’s leadership. However, the Sarri tenure is starting to look more like André Villas-Boas’s brief stewardship in 2011, as it too might not even last a full season.
On Sunday, against Manchester City, Chelsea suffered possibly the most embarrassing loss in their history. As bad as the 6-0 scoreline was, it easily could have been worse. Chelsea sleepwalked through the 90 minutes with barely a hint of effort on the defensive end. It’s a disservice to City and their talent to simply say that they got the blowout because they “wanted it more,” but Chelsea’s apathy was impossible to ignore on so many occasions. Like the complete breakdown in defensive communication that gave City the opening goal in the fourth minute:
Or whatever the hell this abysmal loss of focus was from Ross Barkley on City’s third goal:
Or when the entire defense decided to completely ignore Sergio Agüero in the box ahead of İlkay Gündoğan’s fourth for City:
City very possibly still could have won if Chelsea played their hardest, but no one would confuse that sorry display with the best Chelsea can offer. The Blues gave maybe 10 percent of the effort they showed during what was their best performance of the season, when they beat City 2-0 a couple of months back. Since the new year began, the club has been in free fall, taking just seven points from six games, including a dreadful 4-0 loss to Bournemouth a few weeks ago. Naturally, it’s time to find something to point all the blame, and Sarri’s tactics feel like the prime target.
The most successful Chelsea teams of late have been married to sound defending. Sarri, meanwhile, is in a devoutly monogamous relationship with an aggressive playing system that seeks to dominate the game near the opponent’s goal. It is attack-minded but also incredibly strict, demanding players get forward in numbers and move and pass in precise, manager-prescribed patterns.
It worked beautifully at his previous job at Napoli, but in practice at Chelsea, not only does this style probably require better players than what the team currently has at its disposal—particularly in center defense—it’s also greatly inhibited the effectiveness of one of the few Chelsea players who are legitimately world-class, N’Golo Kanté. The French World Cup-winner has spent the season shunted off high and to the right in order to make room for the underwhelming and defensively inept Jorginho as the primary distributer at the base of the midfield.
As things currently stand, Sarri has broken down Chelsea’s defense by exposing the defensive line with hardly any protection from the midfielders or forwards, and has yet to provide any sort of offensive firepower to make up for it, besides a predictably great season from Hazard. It is of course difficult to overhaul a club and implement a brand-new style of play in just a few months—Guardiola couldn’t even really do it in his first season—but better managers adapt to what they have in order to maximize their squads’ strengths. Sarri, in contrast, still sounds extremely stubborn about forcing his ineffective philosophy on his group.
“I didn’t see my football,” Sarri said after the City loss. “We need to understand the reason, it’s not easy.”
It’s clear who the manager finds culpable: the players. As Sarri told reporters after a 2-0 loss to Arsenal in January, “This group of players is extremely difficult to motivate.” And the players have yet to do anything to prove him a liar. Their body language in the City game was depressing, giving the impression that they gave up as soon as the first goal touched the back of the net, if not before. Chelsea this year have suffered from consistent mental errors, puzzlingly lethargic efforts, and poor results against teams they should easily handle—the kinds of things that show the players really do deserve their fair share of blame.
It’s basically a chicken or egg situation, whether or not the manager or the players are more at fault for the slip in form. (To be fair, Chelsea have spent the majority of the year amongst the top-four and still have a great shot of finishing in one of those spots, which would make for a successful season.) And because this all seems to fit so neatly with Chelsea’s history throughout the Abramovich era, it’s hard not to see this along the same continuum of owner meddling and player power that has long afflicted the club. This clip from Mourinho’s final season feels especially apt:
But even more important for Chelsea’s future than how this season echoes the past is how it differs this time. Abramovich’s Chelsea has been so successful in spite of his penchant for changing managers the way basketball players change shoes because he’s always committed to empowering his new managers with tons of money for them to reshape the squad with some of the best talent in the world. This summer, as he embarked on an effort to fundamentally alter how the team played, Sarri was armed with only two new outfield players—one of whom came on loan, neither being legitimate stars. Given his lack of of a UK visa and subsequent absence from the club, there were more pervasive rumors about Abramovich potentially selling Chelsea than there were about him buying new world-class players for the team. And regardless of whether Sarri, who seems in over his head at a club like Chelsea and a league like England’s, or the players, who once again are coming off as disinterested and entitled, are truly to blame for potentially pissing the season away, everyone can acknowledge that the only quick way back is for Abramovich to spend lots of money in a way he hasn’t yet appeared willing to do.
Chelsea fans might worry about this season because of the performances of the coach and the player, and if the past is anything to go by, Sarri doesn’t look to be long for this job. But what should have fans even more concerned about the club’s longterm position is the aspect that breaks from the longtime pattern: a lack of literal and figurative investment on the part of the owner.