Chelsea supporters have had 20 years of hiring ’em and firing ’em, but that culture is now running headfirst into a long-term project from the owners.
One of the more striking contrasts of the last few months of Chelsea FC has been the push and pull between the club’s stated faith in manager Graham Potter and the increasingly histrionic reaction every time they fail to win another match. Results and performances have not been improving. If anything, a 1-0 home reversal against Southampton marked another low point in a season which hasn’t been shy of them.
Last summer, the plan seemed fairly straightforward. In Thomas Tuchel, they seemed to trust. But this wasn’t exactly how things planned out. By the second week in September Tuchel had gone, replaced within a day by half of Brighton’s backroom staff.
Over the intervening five-and-a-half months, the messaging from the club has at least been consistent. Potter, we have repeatedly been told, is the long-term choice, the project around whom the club’s success in the near future will depend. Results have been poor – especially by the standards of a club that is used to qualifying for the Champions League almost every year – but these concerns, fans are reliably informed, are teething problems which will not be solved by sacking the manager.
But Chelsea supporters have grown incandescent quickly, and for how much longer can that growing anger reasonably be expected to be withstood? This is, after all, a support base that has been weaned on short-termism. Over the last two decades, the manager has been an entirely disposable resource to this club.
Over the 19 years of Roman Abramovich the club had 14 managers, two of whom held the position twice. No-one was too big to avoid the boot if results weren’t flowing, not even Champions League winners Tuchel and Roberto di Matteo, and not even the manager with whom the club is most readily associated, Jose Mourinho.
And those currently gnashing their teeth over Graham Potter’s results since he took charge of the club are justified in believing that this policy of short-termism has worked for Chelsea.
Over the last 20 years, Chelsea have won the Premier League five times, the Champions League twice, the Europa League twice, the FA Cup five times and the EFL Cup three. Twenty trophies in twenty years. For comparison, over the same time period, Arsenal have won six and Spurs have won one. Manchester City have won 15, but six of those were EFL Cups and none came in Europe. Manchester United have won 14, but it’s a decade since they won the Premier League and a decade and half since they last won the Champions League. Put simply, no other English club have been as consistently successful over the last two decades as Chelsea.
But while there can be a tendency for football clubs to react reflexively to bad results by sacking the manager, this should not be pre-ordained. The current football manager is a very convenient human shield for malfunctioning players or owners who are making bad decisions. And the length of those boardroom fuses seems to be getting shorter.
The three-manager season seems to be slowly becoming more commonplace. Southampton may well end up just giving the job to Ruben Telles until the end of the season, but he steps into the shoes of Nathan Jones, who stepped into those of Ralph Hassenhuttl. Just up the road from Stamford Bridge at Loftus Road, in the Championship Queens Park Rangers replaced Michael Beale with Neil Critchley after a poor run of results. They’ve now replaced Critchley – again after a poor run of results – with Gareth Ainsworth, latterly of Wycombe Wanderers.
Of course, the top end of the Premier League is not the Championship and the two most successful teams of the last few years in the top six have been coached by the longest-serving managers. Manchester United burned through five managers in nine years following the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, while Spurs can hardly be said to have improved since the sacking of Mauricio Pochettino in 2019. Arsenal are top of the table, having kept faith with Mikel Arteta through the first couple of years of The Process.
Going a little further back, some of the most successful teams in the history of the English game have been guided by extremely long-term managers. Bill Shankly was with Liverpool for 15 years. Matt Busby and Alex Ferguson were with Manchester United for 24 and 26 years respectively. Don Revie was in charge at Leeds for 13 years. Arsene Wenger was with Arsenal for 22 years and Bill Nicholson with Spurs for 16. Most of these were a long time ago – four of the aforementioned six are dead – but there remains a residual belief that longer equals better when it comes to managerial tenure in this country.
Such sentimentality is unlikely to fit into Todd Boehly’s plans for Chelsea. Tuchel was of the old guard, and has a reputation for being quarrelsome, and the arrival of Potter fit the profile for the long-term project that Boehly has repeatedly said he’s here for. This project is already facing a very stern test. The arrival of new players has been dizzying and it should be perfectly obvious why he seems to select his teams as though he doesn’t know his best XI yet. But projects have to be balanced with results, and those have simply not been forthcoming.
But, as has been correctly identified in the Mailbox this week, Chelsea are run as a business now, and if a long-term project has been committed to, they cannot be seen to be spending hundreds of millions of pounds and then shortly afterwards sacking the manager around whom all this spending was based again. That happened in the summer and has clearly not been successful.
And things can flip quickly. Just look at Arsenal, Manchester United and Newcastle United, who occupy top, third and fourth places in the Premier League this year after finishing last season in fifth, sixth and 11th. Indeed, Chelsea can even look to their own recent history to see how quickly a bad season can be overcome. They finished 10th in 2016 and won it the following year.
It remains possible that they could buckle under pressure should it become too severe, but for the time being it seems unlikely that Graham Potter will leave Stamford Bridge before the end of this season. If Chelsea are to be run as a business, this is understandable. Potter was their man, their decision. Getting stuck into a hire ’em and fire ’em culture, as existed at Stamford Bridge under Abramovich, is financially irresponsible. Offering a manager a three-year contract and then sacking him six months is a horrific waste of money.
Even if it means taking heat in the meantime, so long as Chelsea don’t get relegated this season or suffer anything similarly seismic, the long-term project can remain on course. The owners of the club may yet decide to bow to public pressure, but with investors to answer to and a lot of young talent now tied down to extremely lengthy contracts, sacking Graham Potter would suggest that the ‘long-term project’ idea was a failure as well as the ‘sack Thomas Tuchel and bring our own man in’ idea. And that’s not a good look for anybody.