For a team who have won two Premier League titles in the previous five years, Chelsea find themselves in an uneasy and strangely ambiguous state of transition.
Long-term owner Roman Abramovich seems distracted with matters of visas, their stadium plans have been put on hold, their transfer strategy is inconsistent and, perhaps most problematic of all, there is a lack of consensus on whether they should stick or twist with their latest manager, Maurizio Sarri.
Sarri was supposed to be the man that heralded a new era of stability at Stamford Bridge. The years of chaos had provided unprecedented success but, arguably, never a clearly defined style (or at least not one that the boardroom were comfortablewith).
In their dogged pursuit of Sarri following the tumultuous departure of Antonio Conte, Chelsea were signalling that this was the man to implement the style of possession-based, attractive football they had long craved and, in the process, institute a long-term vision for the club as a whole.
Of course, the move from chaos to consistency would always involve growing pains along the way and, perhaps predictably, Chelsea’s board now face the question of how much pain is bearable.
Sarri began his Chelsea tenure in resounding fashion – 18straight competitive games unbeaten and being discussed as genuine title contenders. Whilst his vision of ‘Sarri-ball’ football never looked entirely finished even then, the consistency of results papered over cracks that exposed themselves dramatically in the new year.
In the aftermath of a series of bad results, Sarri’s approach suddenly appeared all too predictable and ponderous. Chelsea were playing possession-based football, but it lacked any incision and was increasingly undermined by a defensive unit that appeared ill-suited to the task at hand.
As confidence was sapped, the slow deterioration reached itsbottom with the humiliating 6-0 defeat to Manchester City, managed by a Pep Guardiola who had so frequently sung Sarri’s praises in the past. Whatever style Sarri had been working to instil, it was clear that it had not translated to the players at his disposal.
With only a handful of games remaining, Sarri now finds his goal being to return Chelsea to the Champions League. Something that is in their control considering their position in fourth, but with a potentially trickier final stretch of games than either Arsenal or Manchester United.
The Europa League then, may pose a path of lesser resistance.
If you were looking for the clear bet on the Europa League winner, Chelsea are marked as favourites to win the competition. Would doing so, however, be considered a success for Sarri’s first season?
Much depends on how willing the Chelsea hierarchy are to fully commit to an ethos that they have always wanted, but never been willing to practice the patience needed to achieve it.
This is acutely demonstrated in their transfer policy: for every signing that seemed to signal a long-term strategy (Jorginho, N’Golo Kante), there are those that contrastingly showed an underthought reflex of ‘quick-fix’ (Danny Drinkwater, Alvaro Morata).
The threat of their FIFA transfer ban impacts this contradictory approach and may even provide the ideal cover to ‘stick’ with Sarri and a long-term vision – as uncomfortable as it may be – whilst incorporating the youth products such as Callum Hudson-Odoi and Tammy Abraham that have so often been left on the fringes.
Should Sarri return Chelsea to the Champions League via the Europa League, it is likely that it’ll be viewed as a relative success in the scheme of gradually building his style of football.
Even if he doesn’t, however, the Blues must seemingly decide which of the two Chelseas they wish to stick with going forward: they either place their faith & patience in the process of Sarri’s long-term identity, or they elect to return to the years of cyclical ‘win-at-all-costs’ mentality that did provide them continual silverware.
Whether Sarri leads them to the trophy in Baku in June or not, it is clear that Chelsea’s identity crisis runs far deeper than simply the tactics of the current coach in the dugout.