Mentality, mindset and more cup final misery

“We got complacent, took time on the ball like it was a stroll…We didn’t play well enough to win a final. A lot of today is on us”, no, this was not the response from Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel following his sides lacklustre 1-0 defeat to Leicester in the 2021 FA cup final, it was in fact a quote from former manager and Chelsea legend, Frank Lampard, who couldn’t hide his frustrations with his team’s mentality and performance during last seasons all London affair between Chelsea and Arsenal in the 2020 cup final. A game where the gunners came from behind to inflict defeat on Lampard’s young blues.

Just over nine months later with a new manager and over £200m invested into the squad, the same outcome occurred at Wembley, where Chelsea, being overwhelming favourites on paper, couldn’t overcome a Leicester City side who had lost their previous four finals in the competition.

The game was decided by a wonderful long-range strike by Belgium midfielder Youri Tielemans. Some may argue that he and the Foxes were fortunate that the goal was not disallowed for handball. Some may also argue that Chelsea were very unfortunate to have a goal of their own chalked off for a marginal (and I mean marginal) offside decision. Nevertheless, Chelsea struggled to create any real openings during the game and Leicester will feel they more than deserved the victory.

Chelsea’s mentality mishap

It’s becoming a bit of a recurring theme now that Chelsea are coming unstuck in finals, having lost five of their last seven competitive finals (excluding Community Shields). During this time, the only two finals Chelsea have won, were the 2017/2018 FA cup and the 2018/2019 Europa League, giving Chelsea a 28.5%-win rate in finals over the last five seasons. Prior to the 2017 FA Cup final defeat to Arsenal, Chelsea had won nine of their previous fourteen cup finals (excluding Community Shields), which stretches across an eleven-season period (2004/2005-2014/2015). This period of success includes four FA cups, three League cups, one Europa League and most importantly, the Champions League. This gave Chelsea a 64%-win rate in finals over the course of those 11 seasons.

Chelsea fans all over the world will be frustrated with this alarming drop off in winning finals, and will be questioning all involved at Chelsea. This will include the owner, the everchanging managers and the players. All three factors will have had, at some point over the last five seasons, a part to play in what has gone wrong at the club. I am going to break each one down and draw my own conclusions on what I think the main issues are, and what the club can do to resolve them. 

The winning mentality, it's a Chelsea thing. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
The winning mentality, it’s a Chelsea thing. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

The owner

Roman Abramovich. The man who came to England in 2003 and changed the landscape of English football and put Chelsea on the European map. Despite a very successful tenure as the Chelsea owner, over the last five years or so, some Chelsea fans had started to question Mr Abramovich’s love and dedication towards the club. A lot of this stems from Abramovich abandoning his UK Visa application after the British Government chose to delay its renewal. This subsequently led to an abrupt cancellation to the 60,000-seat new stadium which had been in development for a long time. This left a lot of fans, myself included, feeling quite vulnerable about the owner’s position at the club, and whether he would look to sell up and move on. 

It is safe to say however, that over the summer of 2020, the Russian Billionaire certainly put those worries to ease, where even during uncertain Coronavirus times, he splashed over £220m on a player overhaul for the upcoming season, the most he has spent in a single summer as Chelsea owner. Although Abramovich has been away from Stamford Bridge for over two seasons now, he certainly has some trustworthy board members who are managing things adequately in his absence.

The two who perhaps deserve the most praise are Director, Marina Granovskaia and Technical and Performance Advisor, Petr Cech. The former is trusted with negotiating the best possible deals for the club, something that has certainly allowed Chelsea to spend the huge amounts that they have over the last 12 months. The latter, Cech is tasked with providing advice on all football and performance related matters throughout the club. Both play a huge role, and have certainly helped from both a financial and recruitment point of view over the last year. 

Another criticism that usually falls at the hands of the owner is perhaps his lack of empathy towards managers and coaches at Chelsea. Since his arrival in 2003, he has overseen thirteen different managers (not including the caretaker appointments of Ray Wilkins and Steve Holland). Despite this incredible statistic, it has to be acknowledged, that during this period, Chelsea have had magnificent success with their ‘hire and fire’ strategy. This can even be seen this season, where Chelsea replaced perhaps their greatest player of all time, who had a win % of 52% in all competitions before being sacked, with German coach Thomas Tuchel, who in his first 27 games, has a win % of nearly 63%. It’s safe to say that this is progress.

It might seem from the outside looking in that Roman Abramovich is perhaps sometimes unnecessarily ruthless. But, you cannot argue with the fact that he does what he feels is needed to ensure that the club competes at the highest level. Considering both the amounts of money that he plugs into Chelsea, and his proactivity to act on poor results, I don’t think he is the biggest concern when it comes to Chelsea’s recent final disappointments. 

 Roman Abramovich led from the top down, instilling the mentality at the club. (BEN STANSALL/AFP via Getty Images)
Roman Abramovich led from the top down, instilling the mentality at the club. (BEN STANSALL/AFP via Getty Images)

The managers

As previously mentioned, Chelsea have lost five of their last seven major cup finals, is there a mentality issue in the squad? This goes back to the 2017 FA Cup final, where Chelsea came up short to Arsenal at Wembley. During this period, Chelsea have had four different managers, who have all lost at least one cup final. Antonio Conte, Maurizio Sarri, Lampard and current boss, Thomas Tuchel.

The first manager mentioned here, Conte, has won four Serie A titles with both Juventus and Inter Milan. He also led to Chelsea to Premier League and FA cup success during his ill-tempered two year stay in England. Many have described the Italian as a ‘serial winner’. Despite his success in London however, Conte often showed his frustration about the mentality of his Chelsea players. Early in that season, after a dire defeat to Roma in the Champions’ League group stages, Conte questioned his players, calling attention to their attitude, mentality and desire to win.

“In the second half, Roma proved they were hungrier, more determined and had more desire to battle, so they deserved to win.” 

antonio conte speaking after his side’s 3-0 loss away to roma in the champions league, october 2017

Later in the season, prior to a crunch game with Tottenham at Stamford Bridge towards the end of the 2017/2018 campaign, Conte again criticised his players mentality. This time questioning their character and highlighting the lack of winning mentalities in the squad.

“Don’t forget in the last two or three years we lost important players for Chelsea. When you lose important players with great experience and charisma and players used to winning, you lose a lot”. 

Despite these concerns and high levels of unrest with the board, Conte went on to win the FA Cup in his final game in charge before being sacked.

Antonio Conte was replaced by fellow countryman Sarri, who was prized away from Napoli after an excellent season in Serie A. Despite an encouraging start, which saw Chelsea go unbeaten in their first eleven league games, similar feelings about the Chelsea squad were soon revealed to the media by Sarri. Following an abysmal defeat to Arsenal, Sarri criticised his players mentality again, saying that Arsenal were “far more determined than we were” and that his squad were “extremely difficult to motivate”. The Italians reign ended in a similar fashion to his predecessor Conte. He led Chelsea to glory in Baku, by winning the Europa League, but soon left and returned to Italy to manage Juventus. 

Frank Lampard was next up in the Chelsea managerial hot seat. Unlike the previous two managers before him, Lampard failed to win anything with Chelsea, and did lose both of the finals he took charge of. A lot of people will put this down to Lampard’s lack of managerial experience, and whilst that is certainly a key element to consider in these defeats and his subsequent departure, we still heard the murmurs of discontent about the attitude and application of his playing squad.

Lampard, who had incredible mentality levels as a player with the Blues, criticised his players efforts following yet another defeat to Arsenal.

“You get what you deserve. Lazy to give away a penalty. Lazy in terms of giving away a free-kick that he (Xhaka) puts in the top corner. I’m very, very disappointed in the way we approached the first half, because some things in football are basics”.

The player’s mentality 

Tuchel was full of praise for his club following a fantastic win over Manchester City in the FA Cup semi-final. Tuchel said “I strongly believe that some clubs have this aura and this energy to be in finals, and Chelsea obviously has it. If you’re at a club that is regularly in finals you feel it”.

At the time, this felt like a huge statement from the German coach. It felt like he had really unlocked the potential of this Chelsea squad, eliminating the ongoing mentality issues, having guided them to a Champions League and FA Cup final. Less than one month later however, Chelsea came unstuck to Leicester City in the FA cup final. It was an extremely disappointing performance from Chelsea, and one that felt all too familiar.

Prior to 2015, it would be hard to imagine a Chelsea side really letting an opportunity like this pass them by. What has changed since then? The old guard of Petr Cech, Ashley Cole, John Terry, Lampard and Didier Drogba had left the club and not been adequately replaced.  Chelsea had of course spent a lot of money on very technically gifted footballers. But what they have really struggled to replace in the squad, is the mentality, leadership and attitude of the players mentioned above. 

The current group

It feels that now when Chelsea lose, it is accepted by a large group of these players. We get the same half-hearted Instagram post about them being disappointed, but wanting to put things right next time out. It seems that when things really get tough on the pitch, a lot of these players really struggle to turn it around. Chelsea have gone from having Terry and Lampard as their captain and vice-captain, to Cesar Azpilicueta and Jorginho taking over the same roles.

Whilst Azpilicueta is certainly a Chelsea legend in his own right, having recently broken into the top ten appearance makers at the club, his leadership and captaincy credentials are certainly nowhere near those of Terry or any of the other leaders mentioned during their time at Chelsea.

In the case of Jorginho, it is probably fair to say that he is one of the leaders amongst this current crop of players. He still however, lacks the intangible leadership qualities that Chelsea had between 2004-2010. In fact, during this period, Chelsea had nine key first team players who had captained or went on to captain their national teams (Cech, Terry, Lampard, Michael Essien, Andrey Shevchenko, Drogba, Michael Ballack, Arjen Robben and Branislav Ivanovic). Out of the current group of players, only veteran centre half Thiago Silva and American star Christian Pulisic have captained their countries.

The youth of today

A lot of Chelsea’s current squad are very young and not in a position to be club or country captains just yet, but that does not make up for the lack of leadership within the squad. Chelsea only have a handful of players who are currently leaders or have the potential to be leaders in the future. Thiago Silva and Olivier Giroud are leaders. Unfortunately, both are coming to the end of their footballing careers and cannot be relied upon week in, week out. You also have N’golo Kante who is a leader in the way he plays football, but is not very vocal. He has captained the side now on several occasions, but you do not feel that he can carry Chelsea through difficult moments as an emphatic leader of his team mates.

The only other experienced senior players who I feel have some leadership qualities, are German defender Antonio Rudiger and goalkeeper Edouard Mendy. Rudiger has often split opinion within the fanbase, and hasn’t always been the most reliable player on the pitch.

Rudiger has shown his mentality in spells during his time at Chelsea. (Photo by Daniel MIHAILESCU / AFP)
Rudiger has shown his mentality in spells during his time at Chelsea. (Photo by Daniel MIHAILESCU / AFP)

But what you cannot question with him, especially of late, is his passion and desire. At the other end of the spectrum, you have the young English core of players that are coming through like Mason Mount and Reece James. Those two particularly, as well as perhaps Ben Chilwell have the credentials to be leaders on the pitch, but also show the desire to win with Chelsea no matter what.

Outside of that group, it is hard to see see too much desire and leadership within the rest of the Chelsea squad. That may seem harsh, and there is an expectancy for players like Timo Werner, Kai Havertz, Pulisic and Billy Gilmour to develop their mentalities over the next few years. 

Where this leaves the team mentality to improve

This leaves a lot to be desired about a lot of the players who have not mentioned, and they are perhaps the main reason for the drop off over the last five years. Chelsea’s recruitment was good over the last summer, with a lot of money being spent on players with huge levels of potential. This summer however, Chelsea need to recruit experienced leaders rather than players with potential.

Chelsea need players that can play down the centre of the pitch who can both dominate a game with their technical ability as well as their physical prowess and leadership skills. Chelsea’s three priorities should be a defensive midfielder, a striker and a central defender. In an ideal world, Chelsea would go all out and buy Declan Rice, Romelu Lukaku and Raphael Varane. Two of the three players mentioned, Rice and Lukaku, know what it means and how important it is to win at Chelsea, having spent some of their younger years at the club, whether that be in the academy or in the first team.

Lukaku in his time at Chelsea. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
Lukaku in his time at Chelsea. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

Declan Rice may only be 22, but he has nearly played 150 Premier League games for West Ham, and has captained them in a lot of those games. That says an awful lot about his character and leadership credentials. He is also a superb defensive midfielder, and has the physical characteristics to sit on his own and allow Chelsea’s attacking talent to flourish.

As for Lukaku, he would offer Chelsea something completely different to what they have now. A big striker in the peak of his career, with a winning mentality and the ability to score goals, something Chelsea have certainly lacked this season. At 27, and with a point to prove in England, Lukaku could provide a physical and an emotional edge that this Chelsea side lacks. He could be the player that drags Chelsea over the line going forward, something not seen at Chelsea since the departure of Diego Costa.

Finally, there is the need for a dominating, experienced winner at centre back. At 36 years old, Silva surely cannot be relied upon to play week in week out. Since Tuchel has come in, both Rudiger and Christensen have really stepped up in the back three that is currently deployed. But if Chelsea want to dominate games offensively and score more goals, they will eventually have to go back to a back four, and it remains to be seen whether the centre backs are technically, tactically or mentally good enough to cope.

For this reason, Chelsea should try and sign Raphael Varane. The French international has won three league titles and four Champions Leagues’ for Real Madrid in a trophy laden career, as well as the World Cup for France in 2018. He is a winner. He is a leader, and just like Lukaku, he is in the peak of his career at 28 years old. He won’t be cheap, but he will certainly provide Chelsea with some intangible characteristics that you cannot put a price on.

These three players won’t be easy to buy and Chelsea will have done their own scouting to identify cheaper and more attainable alternatives. But until Chelsea start to replace their ‘old guard’ with players that have similar leadership levels and an unwavering will to win, they will be in a constant cycle of change. Things are going well for Thomas Tuchel at this moment in time, but unless Chelsea provide him with the leaders that this club so desperately needs, he will be let down by the players again, and knowing the owner, only one man will pay for that. 

Written by Aaron Lally (@aaronlally)

Edited by Tom Coley (@tomcoley49)

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