It has been a confounding and depressing season to be a Chelsea fan. A few months ago, things were looking up. Chelsea had climbed to second in the Premier League table by the new year.
But the 12 league games of 2018 have seen Chelsea take just 15 of 36 possible points. The Blues have slid back into fifth position. In fifth, and deservedly bounced from this year’s Champions League by a good (not great) Barcelona side, Chelsea will not qualify for next year’s Champions League.
The performances have been as bad as the results. The team has leaked weird goals. The attack has been prone to invisibility. Antonio Conte has gotten lineups and formations wrong on too many occasions. The team has at times looked passionless and tired.
According to soccer analytics website Understat, Chelsea’s advanced stats (expected goals and expected goals against), affirm what fans have seen all season: Chelsea is just not a top-four team. Which, zoomed in, is fine; these things happen. Missing out on next year’s Champions League hurts, but it’s just one season.
It’s the zooming out that troubles me and suggests that Chelsea lacks direction and identity.
In the eight seasons beginning in 2003-4, Chelsea finished in the top three every year. Since the 2010-11 seasons? Sixth, third, third, first, tenth, first and now fifth.
The most tried-and-true method of consistent European soccer success—in domestic leagues without the salary caps and revenue sharing of the major American sports leagues—is outspending your opponents. In the Premier League, both Manchester City and Manchester United are committed to this method, both doling out massive amounts in the recent transfer markets.
Chelsea as a club seem reticent to follow suit. In the last few markets Chelsea has declined to spend on the highest quality (As Manchester United did in landing Paul Pogba) or spend on quantity (As Manchester City did in buying pricey—but not astronomically so—defenders Aymeric Laporte, Benjamin Mendy, Kyle Walker and Danilo). Conte has repeatedly voiced his displeasure this season at the club’s unwillingness to aggressively pursue his desired transfer targets.
As a fan, I’m fine with the club wanting to keep a balanced budget; I don’t need Chelsea to be Man City. The problem is that high expectations still hang around the club, evidenced by Chelsea’s 12 managers in 10 years. With such expectations ever-present, each rough patch becomes a crisis. Such is the life of a Chelsea fan.
While the club has seemingly rejected the Manchester model, so too has it rejected the model of Liverpool and Tottenham, who spend considerably less than both Manchester clubs, yet have put together strong, exciting sides. More importantly, both teams are trending up thanks to the time granted to their respective managers, which allows the imposition of tactical systems, player development and smarter, steadier roster formation.
Chelsea have opted to carve out a path to success in some strange middle ground. Their signings in the last few transfer markets have been downright strange, honestly (Danny Drinkwater for 37 million euros? Davide Zappacosta for 25 million euros?). Signings like those appear neither reasoned enough to address long-term needs nor inspired enough to help in the short term.
They’re not building for the future, yet they’re also not assuring consistency in the present.
So instead, Chelsea’s managers are tasked, year after year, with making their sides equal more than the sum of their parts. Conte did so brilliantly last season. Mourinho did so two seasons prior. Still, you just can’t do that every year, and when managers inevitably are proven unable, they get the sack. This environment of perpetual drama means that normal dips in form infect the club disproportionately, leading to ninth, tenth and fifth-place finishes. Some fans are okay with this model. They argue that yes, it’s brought disastrous seasons, but it’s also produced titles, which is more than Liverpool and Tottenham can say for themselves. But is it sustainable? I don’t believe so. Top players want Champions league football every year, not every two or three. There are only so many managers like Antonio Conte capable of inspiring and transforming a side like he did last season.
Chelsea needs a course correction.