Devil’s advocate? Not me. That would be Keanu Reeves, starring in a particularly execrable film alongside about 5 per cent of Al Pacino’s range. But it’s probably best to preface the whole piece with those two words, because the rest of it is going to annoy a fair few people.
To give things context, you have to go back to when José lost the title in 2006-7. The early signs of friction between manager and board centred on a point of contention so banal as to be almost ludicrous: Tal ben Haim. The mediocre – sorry, Tal – centre back was held up as an example of the difference between a title-winning side and a runner-up.
With the Israeli’s arrival in the January transfer window, the impact of the injuries we suffered at the back would have been cancelled out. Or so José said.
Ben Haim’s actual arrival didn’t do much for Avram Grant, who played him intermittently if at all. I can remember getting a call from an Israeli journalist in the latter half of that fateful season. Obviously the Israeli presence at Chelsea had sparked some interest over there. What, he asked, did I think of Ben Haim’s prospects in the squad? I’m ashamed to say that I snorted and (possibly) tutted. The journalist murmured in sympathy. It seemed that Tal’s prospects at Chelsea were perfectly apparent to both of us. Words were surplus to requirements. Which is ironic, as… never mind.
This time around, however, the controversy revolves around a rather higher-profile player: self-professed Chelsea fan, fans’ Player of the Year, all-round basket of tricks and the solution to England’s left-sided problem. Our number 10, Joe Cole.
Yes, you remember him. The only England player to walk away from the last World Cup with any dignity whatsoever. Does stepovers and all that fancy dan stuff. Occasionally falls out of glamour models’ windows. Slapped down by José Mourinho more than once for his alleged lack of on-pitch discipline. Lauded by many as having added another dimension to his game under the Portuguese. Tracks back occasionally. That one.
Joe can’t win, really. Mourinho made him work harder, no doubt. Of course, the moment he starts tracking back and making tackles – and he’s not a bad tackler at all – some gimp on Sky or RTE starts complaining that he’s been shackled, and that he needs more room to express himself.
He’s also been played as a winger more or less constantly since 2004, but doesn’t have the turn of speed of -let me pick a name out of a hat… Arjen Robben – and, all too often, it seems as though his number’s been crunched by the opposition.
Eight times out of ten, Joe would rather jink infield and shoot or lay it off than go to the byline. He can cross, but it’s not a strength for him in the way it is for Florent Malouda. Just kidding, by the way. If you can think of one of Malouda’s strengths, answers on a postcard. First correct answer gets a cut-price move back to Ligue 1.
The Chelsea manager has given us some mixed messages in the past month or two. Recently, he explained that he’d only asked Chelsea for one player on his arrival, and that Deco was very happy with his first eight or ten games and had become unaccountably rubbish since then. Part of the previous sentence is a fabrication, but you get the idea. Anyway, I seem to remember him pining after a certain tricky Brazilian who, to the surprise of everyone including (probably) himself, found himself turning out for the blue side of Manchester. We can only hope that he finds the ensuing relegation struggle character-building.
So Felipao never wanted Robinho at all. And yet, confusingly, he’s sort of right. We are missing a creative spark at home. There’s a great phrase often bandied around: “that special kind of player that can unlock defences”. They certainly are special. And usually made of glass, which is why Arjen Robben spends so much time with the physio. What do you do when your special kind of player is injured? Well, that depends. 2004 Chelsea would have bought another one. Madrid still do. Manchester United would pull another teenage prospect out of their bottom (or “Sporting Lisbon”, as it’s also known). But I digress.
The lack of creativity that troubles Chelsea at the moment… well, isn’t that the sort of problem that Joe Cole was supposed to solve? Nasty chip wrapper the Daily Mail ran recently, and I’m sad to say that there’s plenty in there to agree with.
Is Joe just not good enough anymore? Or is Scolari not playing him in the right way/giving him the chance/etc etc? And yes, he’s been injured and out of form, but back for some time. A quick acid test: on the Premier League’s Fantasy Football site, he’s been selected by a mere 2.9 per cent of teams. He has fewer points to his name than Florent Malouda. God help us.