Fans of rival clubs taunt Chelsea supporters by claiming the club “hasn’t got any history” — which isn’t quite fair.
You won’t find many other clubs in the top four divisions of English football, for example, who have maintained their name, their ground and their colours since their formation. Some 114 years on, Chelsea are still Chelsea, they’re still playing at Stamford Bridge, and they’re still playing in blue — albeit a somewhat darker shade than originally.
What is true, though, is that Chelsea didn’t have a track record of sustained success before Roman Abramovich’s takeover in 2003. They won several cups throughout the 1990s, but their league triumph under Jose Mourinho in 2004-05 came exactly 50 years after their previous title — the third-longest gap between league triumphs in English football history.
And in many ways, that league success was Chelsea’s Year Zero, the season that set the tempo for the subsequent 15 years. Chelsea have been through several managers since then, including the return of Mourinho, yet still seem guided by the principles he introduced back in 2004, which supporters took to instantly, and have become accustomed to. This season, Maurizio Sarri, a footballing philosopher who insists upon relentless possession play, was always likely to find it difficult to introduce his preferred style.
It’s worth recalling the extent of that 2004-05 title-winning campaign. Chelsea conceded just 15 goals in 38 matches, an unthinkably impressive record that might never be beaten in the Premier League. Or, if you prefer, Chelsea kept 25 clean sheets that season, also a record. In terms of their attack, Mourinho’s side were inconsistent: Didier Drogba wasn’t yet firing on all cylinders, Arjen Robben was brilliant on occasion but rarely fit, and Joe Cole was only half trusted by Mourinho. They became experts at collecting 1-0 victories, largely achieved with defensive, counterattacking football.
Chelsea have, by and large, followed the same template since. The managers who were recruited to introduce more positive football — Luiz Felipe Scolari, Andre Villas-Boas — barely lasted half a season. Those who played more cautiously — Roberto Di Matteo, Rafael Benitez, Antonio Conte, Mourinho again — enjoyed success.
Even Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea, who scored 100 goals on the way to the Premier League title in 2009-10, were a rampant, powerful side rather than a technical, incisive outfit, and not to the tastes of Abramovich. Chelsea’s owner once summoned Ancelotti to his apartment, delivering a rebuke for the unattractive football Chelsea had played on the opening day of 2010-11. Incredibly, Chelsea had just won 6-0.
Abramovich has always yearned for attacking football, but then returned to more results-oriented managers when the coaches who promised technical expertise stumbled. In a way, boardroom decisions have only furthered the sense that Chelsea are naturally pragmatists. Just as Abramovich happily abandons a project rather than having an entrenched belief in a particular philosophy, so too have Chelsea’s managers — reacting to the opposition rather than making the running.
Chelsea’s supporters, though, are slightly different to Abramovich. In an era when fans of big clubs insist that their side has a grand tradition of attacking football, and that any new appointment must declare a commitment to playing the game “the right way,” Chelsea fans make no such claims. They are largely steadfast in their preference for getting the job done regardless of style, and the fact Chelsea have been content to soak up pressure before breaking quickly means they’ve become accustomed to speedy attacks, whether through Damien Duff or Nicolas Anelka or Eden Hazard.
And this is entirely reasonable: It’s arguably only in the past decade, since Pep Guardiola took charge of Barcelona and Spanish football’s possession-based approach became the template across the continent, that dominating the ball has become quite so revered. Arsene Wenger’s early Arsenal sides were predominantly counterattacking, for example, and yet were widely admired for the speed of their breaks. This season, with Chelsea building up play slowly and methodically, Stamford Bridge has been quieter than ever.
After all, these are supporters who have spent the past 15 years laughing at the idea that attractive football is more important than trophies, mocking Arsenal and Tottenham fans for pointing to positive play rather than serious honours. It means Chelsea do have a philosophy; it’s just the complete opposite of the philosophy supposedly relished elsewhere. They’ve been worshipping Mourinho, so they like counterattacking and don’t care about pleasing the neutral. Chelsea fans have been worshipping John Terry, so they like deep defending. They’ve been worshipping Drogba and Diego Costa, so they like aerial battles and physical confrontations. They’ve been worshipping Claude Makelele and N’Golo Kante, so appreciate defensive midfielders rather than deep playmakers.
And this, more than anything else, is Sarri’s problem. It’s not his tactics themselves, which produced wonderful football during his time with Napoli. It’s not necessarily the quality of his players, many of whom won the Premier League two seasons ago. More than anything else, it’s the fact Chelsea’s supporters aren’t on board with his project, they don’t want to give him time, they’re not interested in how his possession-based model will develop.
Partly because of the frustration of supporters, it’s unlikely the Italian will remain at Stamford Bridge next season, and the defining moment of his campaign at Chelsea will be when young goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga overruled Sarri’s attempt to substitute him in the Carabao Cup final at Wembley last month.
But behind that incident was something more significant: Chelsea had played the Sarri way against Manchester City a fortnight earlier and lost 6-0, then played the old-school Chelsea way against Manchester City at Wembley and drew 0-0.
Sarri, the ultimate ideologue, the apparently inflexible possession obsessive, was now coaching a side who played the type of football he loathes, the type of football he’s always rallied against. Ultimately, he hasn’t been able to overhaul the club’s philosophy, and has found himself bound by Chelsea’s history.