Ancelotta Problems

Posted on January 24, 2011

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(Sorry for the horrific use of the pun headline. Can we all just pretend that I’m using it ironically).

One team that’s been conspicuous by their absence in the transfer window so far has been Chelsea. The fact that a 2-0 victory at home to Blackburn isn’t merely routine is a sign of how the expectations for this team have dropped since the 21 goals scored to 1 conceded in the opening 5 matches of the season. The team that was pegged to be runaway title winners is hobbling. And in the wrong direction. Towards a minefield.

With Manchester United defying all likelihood and remaining (to date) unbeaten, the best Arsenal side in years, Spurs playing some scintillating attacking football and the Man City mercenaries starting to gel, even a top 4 finish is in question for the Blues. Where did it all go wrong for last season’s double winners?

Firstly and foremost, I don’t hold the demise of Chelsea’s title hopes to be the fault of Britain’s most famous ex-first team coach, Ray Wilkins. The man was clearly influential at Stanford Bridge but unless you think that coaches dish out magical talent pills before each match, it wouldn’t explain the sudden and calamitous collapse of the team’s fortunes. Chelsea were on the wane before Wilkins’ departure. The three league matches before he left were a nervy scraped 2-1 at Blackburn, the 2-0 defeat at Anfield and a quiet 1-0 at home to injury-ravaged Fulham. Only 3 points were lost, but the team was far from the imperious dominating form of earlier the season.

I don’t see this as a temporary loss of form. As many commentators have noted, this is one old side. To look at strikers alone, Anelka is 32 in March, Drogba will be 33 and even the inconsistent Malouda turns 31 this year. This isn’t necessarily a problem if you have youth prospects to turn to, but Sturridge and Kakuta have yet to make compelling cases for a long term future at the bridge.

Defensively, things are even worse. While I’m no fan of Carvalho, his abrupt departure when former Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho came calling left the team short of experience at the back. Terry and Alex are now the primary centre backs, even though both have struggled for fitness and John Terry spends half his time moving like a man with a stone in his shoe. Hell, maybe he does. Maybe the kit guy is an old friend of Wayne Bridge.

Not Picture: A comfortable man.

Other than those two the options are limited. Ivanovic has historically been a right-back, and Ancelotti was forced to play 19 year old Jeffrey Bruma in the must-win match against Villa (that they didn’t win). To say that this is not a team with depth in it an understatement comparable to saying that this is not a man with great career prospects.

At 10 points behind the leaders beyond the halfway point of the season, it’s hard to see a comeback at this point. And it’s hard to point out a specific player that’s underperforming. They just give a collective aura of a prize fighter past his prime. No comparisons are being made with Liverpool yet, especially since there’s always the option for Roman Abramovich to break out the cheque book and sign a fresh batch of Galacticos.

But there’s the crux of the problem. With Roman now being more stingy with the purse-strings, Chelsea are in an enforced period of rebuilding. There have been some pretty canny movements in the transfer window, with some dead weight (Ballack, Cole) moved on and some promising buys (it hasn’t really paid off but I was taken with the Benayoun capture after his last season with Liverpool). This alongside the emergence of youth players with genuine promise is a great thing for the club. For all the claims of bought titles in the past, Chelsea are starting to look like a team that could stand on its own merits rather than just its owner’s. But the corollary is that they may have to go a while without winning a trophy.

In an ironically depressing way, it’s refreshing to see the amount of support that Carlo Ancelotti is getting from the fans and the board. The Premier League would be a better place if more managers were given time to actually build a team (looking at you here Merseyside). How long it’ll last is a tricky subject. With a tough run of games against Bolton, Everton and Fulham away as well as Liverpool at home coming up, too many dropped points could leave him on the ropes.

This is a team with a recent history of reaching for the ‘Sack Manager’ button if it looks as though there won’t be shiny new silverware this year. Even if they don’t do so, there will probably be the temptation to splash out on players that will be given 2/3 weeks before being branded failures by not adapting immediately to the pressures of the Premiership.

Artist's impression of the 'Sack Manager' button.

To be blunt, Chelsea are at an impass. The decision they as a team, a management and a fanbase will determine the fate of the club for at least the next half-decade. If they choose to continue the recent practice of getting rid of players past their best, buying new players for value rather than reputation, and develop their youth side, they could get past the label of having bought success rather than earned it. But if they just throw (or in the case of the fans, demand that the club throws) £20 million at the biggest name they can get (Luiz, Subotic, Kjaer) or worse, sack Carlo for having the temerity not to win everything all the time, then they are just condemning the club to being a billionaire’s toy for the forseeable future.

 

Banner image via Mirror Football.
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