By Steve Graves
Tuesday’s Champions League quarter-final second leg between Manchester United and Chelsea has been picked over endlessly in the press and online. The match, while far from the dullest meeting these sides have produced, could hardly be considered a classic. Yet it bore all the hallmarks of a defining encounter for so many of those involved, at least on the blue half of the equation.
Countless ‘five things we learned’ features have been rattled off on websites in the subsequent 48 hours or so, with the opinions coalescing around a few well-worn points:
1 Carlo Ancelotti’s days at Stamford Bridge are numbered.
2 Fernando Torres is not the player he was at Liverpool.
3 Didier Drogba can still play a bit
4 Chelsea need to overhaul their ageing side and bring in fresh, young faces
5 Chelsea should not have allowed Michael Ballack to leave in the summer
Aside from the obvious contradiction between points four and five, there is a case to be made for all of the above. Watching the game, however, there loomed one overarching problem with the Chelsea squad, the product of more than just ageing limbs and managerial misdirection.
Chelsea’s collection of players is as good as any in the league. They may no longer have the vast squad depth enjoyed in the Mourinho years, but there remains a core of experienced, effective performers, most of whom would find a home in almost any dressing room in England.
What was striking about Wednesday’s capitulation, and the first-leg defeat which sounded the real death knell for their European ambitions, was how little Chelsea love the ball.
For decades the prevailing philosophy in English football training was that players should be denied the ball during the week, to heighten their desire for possession on a Saturday. The end result was an unintended one - most players, unused to ballwork and without the muscle memory created by practising relentlessly the basic elements of technique, surrendered possession far too cheaply in general play. This could be said to have contributed, along with other key factors, to the faster-paced variety of football which survives in England to this day.
While such thinking was swept aside long ago at most clubs, observers from the 1950s would have been forgiven for thinking the side in blue had been coached by Major Frank Buckley or Stan Cullis on Tuesday night.
Put simply, Chelsea do not love the ball. They are not its friends. At times, particularly against higher-quality opposition, they treat it with the kind of suspicion you might normally reserve for a man on a train casually fondling a switchblade.
That’s not to say Chelsea are a negative or unattractive team to watch, at least not by design. They have outstanding talent across the pitch and are capable of producing moments, such as Didier Drogba’s superbly-constructed goal on Tuesday, which can electrify.
What Chelsea lack more than anything else is at least one player who looks after the ball above all else. Not a Frank Lampard, capable of fast-paced improvisation and late bursts into the box. Not a John Obi Mikel, a ball-winner with limited ability in possession. Not even a Ramires, unfairly maligned this season but clearly a powerful box-to-box presence.
No, Chelsea need a Xavi. A Xabi Alonso. Even a Michael Carrick would do. (Incidentally, another overlooked point from Tuesday is the evidence it provides for Alex Ferguson’s persistence with a midfielder who tries the patience of many fans). They need a player prepared to play a hundred passes before attempting a single killer ball, an anti-Lampard, a custodian of the football whose pass completion ratio will mean as much to him as any run of goals or assists.
Since Roman Abramovich bought the club, Chelsea have barely made a nod in the direction of signing a player who might knit together the disparate strands of their various costly squads. Success has come and gone intermittently over that period, achieved with a mix of pragmatism and battering-ram flair, but long-term dominance of either the domestic or European sphere has eluded them.
Throughout that period of huge outlays on players who never did it for the club, as well as many who did, Chelsea have never sought to address the fundamental problem literally at the centre of their failings. This lack of foresight and long-term planning is at least in part due to the short-term nature of so many managerial appointments - what’s the point in investing in a solid foundation if you’re to be judged on the gabling of the roof?
For those eight years Abramovich has been the constant factor at the top of the club. The billionaire has overseen transfer dealings with varying degrees of hands-on involvement, depending on the relative strength of his manager at the time and seemingly the fluctuations in his own level of interest in the club.
The key problem at Chelsea, which has led to failed attempt after failed attempt to capture the biggest prize on the biggest stage, has been Abramovich. Directly and indirectly he is responsible for the club failing to recruit players capable of dictating play and distributing the ball with the kind of efficiency and economy displayed by Bastian Schweinsteiger at the heart of the German midfield during last summer’s World Cup.
Managers have come and gone, but Abramovich would do well to learn from Harry Truman’s observation about where the buck stops. He could chain-hire his way through many more managers before getting what he wants if he does not.