After a long, hard and ultimately disappointing season, Andy Morley takes a moment to look back at Chelsea’s renaissance over recent years and tries to assess where we stand at the moment.
Several years ago we trotted along in mid table mediocrity with average players playing below average football. Then the club appointed Glenn Hoddle. I am not sure how much of this was down to the club and how much was due to Hoddle. I remember that after his injury he trained with the club to get fit before going off to Swindon as player-manager. I have never seen anything suggesting that he was going to come back, but the more I look back the more I think his return was assured.
Hoddle did very little in terms of final standings in the league. We finished eleventh and fourteenth in alternate seasons. Yet somewhere in the club the revolution started. The team started to play the way football should be – pass and move, although how Tony Cascarino and Mick Hartford fitted in is still beyond me. There were minor changes on the pitch, but for me the big change occurred off it. The youth team set-up through to the first team all started playing the same way, the idea being that players could then easily progress up each step of the ladder.
Okay, so the touted Ajax-on-the-Thames never quite materialised, but it was nice while it lasted. The change appears to have been as much one of mentality as anything else. Hoddle gave players belief in their own ability. Admittedly, the staff were some way short of playing the way Hoddle visualised and the ability of some of his signings to trap a ball further than others could pass it did not help, but the intentions were there.
The arrival of Ruud Gullit triggered the next move. Bringing in big-name players who for the most part were moving into the final stages of their careers. However, they did serve two functions: they added ability to the belief and raised the club’s profile.
Gianluca Vialli followed and took much the same approach, bringing in big names who were mostly fading stars. Between the various managers I can think of only a few notable exceptions to the buy-big-not-promising policy. Frank Leboeuf was an unknown and developed into an international winner. Roberto Di Matteo was a big name at Lazio but relatively unknown elsewhere, although he certainly appears to have faded rather than grown. Gianfranco Zola is a difficult one to classify as he was a big name and a regular international but he has done big things since.
I will maintain, until convinced otherwise, that Vialli was in the process of attempting to lower the age of the squad. Having achieved success in cup competitions, as his predecessors did, and after one shot at the league – a final attempt by ageing players to win a title in a country where only one of them had won it previously – he knew that he had to change the balance.
Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink was a move in the right direction. A proven player but not quite an established choice at international level, although he is now. But it is noticeable that we have moved towards signing younger players. Jesper Gronkjaer was a genuine attempt to add what many of us had called for – pace and width. Mario Stanic also offers width while Mario Melchiot adds more pace.For the most part these players are bringing the average age of the squad down.
Claudio Ranieri has added youth, but then again he could afford to. We wrote off any challenge for honours last season when we sacked the manager after a poor start. Vialli bought the new manager the room to play the likes of John Terry, Sam Dalla Bona and occasionally Jody Morris. It was not his intention, but it turned out that way. Vialli himself may well have thrown the younger players in. We will never know, but he would have been taking a much bigger risk than Ranieri has done.
William Gallas certainly seems a move in the right direction, back to buying young players with potential. His position in the French squad looks a lot like that of Leboeuf when he was signed. Yet why do I still feel that we are treading water rather than moving forward? The new manager’s first signings hardly inspire confidence. Gronkjaer has had one-and-a-half good games and Slavisa Jokanovic hardly fits the model of a young, pacy player.
People point to Leeds as having had a good season, even though they won nothing and it was no better than ours last year. But they have a younger team so at least you can see what they are trying to do, even if like me you are convinced neither by their team nor their manager. Arsenal may have an ageing team and not have won anything for three seasons, but you can see what Arsene Wenger wants – players with pace and touch.
Hoddle wanted to play with a sweeper playing the ball to feet. He was prepared to do it with players picked up from lower divisions and the existing squad. Gullit moved over time to a back four and wanted players who could interchange. He wanted to score pretty goals and tried to balance the squad he inherited from Hoddle with a few bigger names. Vialli wanted to play good football when the situation dictated but was not adverse to playing more direct football overall.
I am still wondering about Ranieri’s style. His substitutions often confuse people, not least the players, and his tactical decisions beggar belief on occasion. By now though the players should be capable of adjusting to this. Ranieri still refuses to comment on certain aspects of the team, his decisions, his footballing philosophy. His column in Onside often contains the kind of comments I would expect to see from the likes of Harry Redknapp or Jim Smith. “We’re training hard, working on fitness and not conceding the first goal.”
I do not expect any manager to explain his tactical decisions or the way he wants his team to play in any great detail. His opposite number has just as much likelihood of reading the piece as any fan. I would, however, expect someone, somewhere, to be able to work out what is going on. As far as I can work out even respected sports writers and pundits are confused.
Can anyone tell me how Ranieri would like the team to play? What his first choice formation is? His preferred starting eleven? Why he frequently takes off proven goal-scorers when we need to score goals? Who decides whom we buy, is it the manger or Hutchinson? More importantly, is the club moving forward, standing still or falling away?