I had the misfortune of watching West Ham and Chelsea draw in the least memorable stalemate so far this season. It was, however, thought provoking and led me to question Chelsea as a concept as much as a club.
Why is it, that they cannot settle on a long-term manager despite sustained success? How can they go from runaway champions one season to missing out on the Champions League the year after? Perhaps, more pressingly, how do they expect to win a league title with Olivier Giroud leading the line?
Alvaro Morata has not fired on all cylinders since his arrival from Juventus and Giroud does have a moment of brilliance in him every twenty games or so. However, barring Montpellier’s astonishing title victory in France in 2012, a club side featuring the big Frenchman has not mounted a damaging assault on the top.
His way of playing as a centre-forward is not conducive to thirty-eight game football. It can work wonders in the odd game and he links up play significantly better than many players of his type. It even suits Chelsea’s new obsession with Sarriball and passmaster Jorginho. Yet, ultimately, he relies on consistent service, an old fashioned striking bully who silently demands more goals than his teammates.
France managed to avoid this problem by fielding so many alternatives that they virtually bypassed Giroud entirely. I must make it clear that I do not dislike Giroud this fervently as a footballer. It does strike me though, that Chelsea have enough options either side to replicate France if they were bold enough.
Against West Ham, Chelsea played so centrally, trying to intricately work their way through the lines before inevitably losing out to a bruising Hammers tackle on the edge of the box. Only in the last ten minutes did Willian receive some amount of freedom to express down the wings and this was when Chelsea were at their most effective all game. In the first half, when Giroud was on, any time the ball went wide it either went immediately back whence it came or aimlessly into the middle hoping that Giroud would outmuscle his man without support.
He succeeded on some occasions but not regularly enough nor effectively enough and West Ham quickly came up with a plan to shield goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski without too much alteration to their strategy . This, in turn, highlights a problem with the fabled “Sarriball.”
It is almost too similar to tiki-taka to be distinguished. There is a midfield fulcrum, Jorginho, who is allowed as many touches as the opposition combined and can play a ten yard pass with his eyes closed. There are wingers who can carry the ball at will and full-backs and other assorted playmakers who can be called upon when required. Even N’Golo Kante now darts into the box without restraint.
It sounds a lot like Manchester City, right? The difference? Every City player looks like they want to score, all the time. Chelsea’s XI still seem a little tentative or would prefer to simply create than to poach. They don’t possess the intensity of thirst that the likes of Sterling, Sane and the Silvas perform upon. Theirs is quenched merely by helping and playing a part. There is no I in team but every team relies on selfish individuals now and again.
Against West Ham, Chelsea toiled tirelessly but lacked the willingness to sacrifice positional organisation for greater chances to score. Indeed, Sunday’s game at the Olympic Stadium was not the only one in which Chelsea failed to switch through the gears. It took them until the final twenty minutes to break down Bournemouth and they were 1-0 down at home to Cardiff with just ten minutes left of the first period.
Their lack of raw, uninhibited ruthlessness is likely why Chelsea have become the top 6’s yoyo club. One season, they’re brilliant, a new manager able to unleash the best out of his players once the confidence starts to roll. As soon as the honeymoon period finishes, however, it seems the playing staff lose the will to extend the success, content in the knowledge that a league title delivered is job done. That false sense of accomplishment led to Chelsea finishing a combined 14 places off the top in the two seasons following their Premier League titles.
Like Mourinho and Conte before him, Sarri has taken the reins, admittedly with fewer days in which to get things organised, and got Chelsea’s mojo back. But it isn’t as simple as replenishing the evaporated swagger of old. Sarriball, while flowery and easy on the eye, is not a system of itself, certainly not something to be relied on to deliver a consistent stream of trophies. He needs to create another Stamford Bridge identity, like Mourinho’s punishing counter attacks or Conte’s three-at-the-back.
The Blues’ blues have been replaced by a spot of Sarri sunshine for now though caution is best heeded. Even if Chelsea go on to win their third consecutive alternate-year, odd-numbered title, that would be just the beginning for the chainsmoking Italian and his staff. To quote Alex Turner, “Don’t believe the hype.”
Believe in success, sustainability and Sarri.