1st, 10th, 1st, 5th…
If this were a GCSE Maths exam and you were asked to fill in the next number in that sequence then – aided by illegal ‘smart drugs’, according to the Daily Mail – you would likely take a plump at 1st. There is definitely a pattern. Now, forget mathematical logic and consider that this is Chelsea’s very recent history in the Premier League and try and justify the next number being anything higher than 6th. This is supposed to be the summer when they right the wrongs of the previous season; instead, there seems to be a commitment to exacerbation.
When a player like Jean-Michael Seri takes a look at the Chelsea situation, decides that the club is too unstable and then opens negotiations with West Ham, you know you have an issue. The West Ham of the Dildo Brothers is remarkably now the sensible option when pitched against an elite club that has a manager in name alone. While almost every other club is making significant transfer moves, Chelsea are stuck in a stasis of their own construction.
While Manchester City’s dominance means they can take their own sweet time about ‘strengthening’ their squad, Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal have all made a pair of signings – with the latter seemingly close to two more – while Tottenham are of course still playing by their own transfer rules, engaging in the kind of brinkmanship we would not recommend for beginners. Chelsea? Chelsea are busy talking compensation with both Antonio Conte and Napoli. And football being football, it will cost them more to sack the man they do not want than to appoint the man they do.
When Maurizio Sarri is finally appointed, he will take over a squad that requires significant surgery and less than eight weeks in which to perform that surgery. Over £230m was spent last season and yet only three of the incoming nine players started the FA Cup final. Astonishingly, £50m of that sum was spent on Danny Drinkwater and Ross Barkley, neither of whom were under real consideration for an England World Cup squad featuring a Chelsea player who was loaned out to another Premier League club. Also in Russia is Michy Batshuayi, reluctantly bought, ignored and then discarded by Conte. This is a club with 60 professional footballers; Sarri will have less than two months to assess, dissect, invest and somehow create a team.
If this were any other club, we might talk about transitions. We might talk about a ‘project’. We might talk about the importance of time. But all those words mean nothing to Roman Abramovich, who has not allowed any manager to survive a season outside of the Champions League places. Indeed, poor Carlo Ancelotti was sacked about four minutes after he finished second. “This season’s performances have fallen short of expectations and the club feels the time is right to make this change ahead of next season’s preparations,” said a statement on May 22, 2011. Seven years and a month on, Chelsea have not yet sacked a manager who finished sixth and there is no sign of next season’s preparations being any kind of factor. Things have changed at Chelsea.
By mid-June of 2016, Chelsea were already deep in negotiations with Leicester for N’Golo Kante, whose transfer was completed less than a week after the Euro 2016 final. They had announced their new manager in April and – even with him in France for a major tournament – there was a sense that plans were coming together. This year the transfer window closes two weeks earlier and there is only a sense that Chelsea are being left behind.