It’s now the second week in February. At the weekend, Chelsea were held at home by Hull City and were shunted into fourth place by Aston Villa. Their season is far from over. They’re still in the Champions League and they’re still in the FA Cup and, were it not for the fact that Manchester United have been so outstanding over the last couple of months, grinding out results like some sort of team full of hideous football match winning robots, one would look at the Premier League table and think that they still had an outside chance of winning that. Chelsea, though, aren’t like most other clubs.
It wouldn’t be completely unfair to say that Felipe Scolari never stood a chance. In the interests of even-handedness, however, here’s the case for the prosecution. Dumped out of the League Cup, Chelsea’s players have seldom looked like they have the stomach for much of a fight this season. One of the key characteristics of Chelsea over the last four or five years or so has been their relentlessness. This season, however, they have been dumped out of the League Cup by Burnley and given an almighty fright in the FA Cup by Southend United. The winning habit has been broken, and teams are no longer scared of them. Ultimately, however unfair this may seem, the buck for this stops with the manager. There were times when his Portugal team looked hopelessly disorganised, and Chelsea this year have occasionally looked disorganised themselves. There have been too many occasions upon which the players have not looked as if they want to play for him. If he couldn’t control the dressing room, then he was always going to be living on borrowed time at Stamford Bridge.
The case for the defence, however, is a strong one. Most obviously of all, seven months is no time at all. It has been pointed out on this site before that Manchester United’s spectacular success over the last fifteen years or so was built on a firm base. Alex Ferguson had sailed close to the wind several times before the championships started rolling in. He took seven years from getting the job to winning his first Premier League title, and a further six years to win his first European title. It is more less impossible to be able to imagine anyone being given anything like that amount of time at Chelsea to try and set things straight. The timing of the decision is also somewhat on the peculiar side. Even if one is critical of Scolari, the decision to not give him at least a full season means that no-one will ever truly know whether he could have been successful. This season’s league form will be largely forgotten if they win the Champions League.
The problems at Stamford Bridge appear to be institutional. They can sack as many managers as they like, but it won’t solve problems that run considerably deeper than anything that any manager can deal with. Roman Abramovich has looked increasingly disinterested in Chelsea over the last twelve months or so, and the recent economic downturn seems to have confirmed that widely held belief that, when the chips are down, the oligarchs will look after themselves rather than their football clubs. Chelsea now have to sell in order to buy, and Chelsea’s squad has stagnated. For all the criticism that can be levelled at the Glazers at Manchester United (and there is much that one can criticise them for), they have at least allowed Alex Ferguson to make bold signings to strengthen his squad. Chelsea, by comparison, have stagnated. The suspicion remains that the senior players continue to hold too much power at Stamford Bridge, and that a form of factionalism which seems to suit several “senior professionals” continues to dominate the power politics in the dressing room.
The reality of the problem is that, rather than sacking their manager every eight months or so, Chelsea will only be able to regain their position at the summit of the Premier League if they start to sweep away what is causing the problem in the first place. In most organisations, a problem employee would be shipped out as soon as their behaviour became an issue. At Chelsea Football Club, however, the lunatics have taken over the asylum. The manager has been swept out and they go into the next couple weeks with Ray Wilkins managing the team. The owners of the club should show a bit of courage for once, and bring in a new manager that has the power to actually manage the club. If they don’t do this, their supporters can only really expect their slow descent into madness to continue.