In May 2004, Claudio Ranieri was sacked after a trophyless season at Chelsea.
In May 2008, Avram Grant was sacked after a trophyless season at Chelsea, despite finishing second and reaching the Champions League final.
In May 2011, Carlo Ancelotti was sacked after a trophyless season at Chelsea, despite finishing second the year after winning the Premier League title.
In May 2014, Jose Mourinho was not sacked after a trophyless season at Chelsea, Roman Abramovich trusting – quite rightly – that he would deliver in his second season back at the club.
In May 2019, we may discover just how much trust Chelsea hold in Maurizio Sarri, the club’s tenth permanent manager under the Russian owner. Of the nine that preceded him, only Mourinho has ever been allowed to fail.
And Mourinho really did fail in 2013/14. History has been kind as it records Liverpool’s slip, but Chelsea were top of the Premier League between early February and late March, when they lost 1-0 to Crystal Palace thanks to a John Terry own goal. That 1-0 defeats to both Aston Villa and Palace sandwiched a 6-0 win over Arsenal only adds to the true story of what might have – and possibly should have – been.
“The title race is between two horses and a little horse that needs milk and needs to learn how to jump,” said Mourinho in February when they had triumphed 1-0 at Manchester City to draw level with the title favourites. The king of obfuscation was keen to paint any possible title win as a triumph against all the odds, while failure really could not be deemed failure. Whatever happened, he deserved another year, when he suggested that “maybe…we can race”.
There are certain parallels between that season and this, with Eden Hazard emerging as Chelsea’s top scorer as they lurched between various unconvincing strikers, with Fernando Torres, Demba Ba and Samuel Eto’o all failing to reach double figures in the Premier League. Ultimately, Chelsea finished four points but over 30 goals shy of City, the Premier League’s meanest defence failing to compensate for a lack of precision at the other end of the pitch.
Five years on, finishing four points behind Manchester City would be a positive triumph. Any manager in charge of a 26-point swing towards the champions – who are already 4/7 to retain that title – cannot possibly be seen as a failure. Indeed, it could be argued that halving that 30-point deficit would be reason enough to unequivocally back that manager; City are now so ridiculously accomplished that other managers can only be judged on how close they can crawl.
Sarri has spoken about a pressure to deliver trophies at Stamford Bridge, but style points will surely earn him some leeway. Roman Abramovich has long yearned for the holy grail of tangible success allied with entertainment and he chased Sarri knowing that he had not delivered on both counts in three wonderful but ultimately fruitless years with Napoli. Logic suggests that Sarri has not been appointed to deliver a Premier League title in his first season, but instead to engender a style of football that would break the success-disaster cycle of the last four seasons. Right now, three consecutive top-three finishes and scintillating, dominant football might well be preferable to two ground-out title wins sandwiching an embarrassing mid-table finish.
“We have to work, then maybe in one year we will be at the same level as Liverpool,” said Sarri in September. A week later, he had slightly revised his opinion but said that both Manchester City and Liverpool were “a step forward on us”. Presumably he is saying the same thing behind closed doors at Chelsea and they will understand that a fallow year is not necessarily a wasted year. Stopping the lurch and making Chelsea even vaguely likeable should be worth at least two seasons. Allowing a manager to fail might be Chelsea’s clearest route to sustained success.