Chelsea: European Champions and Utterly Bonkers

Would you have it any other way, though? As the champagne and happy tears dry, as the confetti is gathered and the Big Eared trophy is stowed away in its new home, quiet contemplation begins. The magnitude of Chelsea’s second European Cup notwithstanding, it is incredible that the West London side are here after the most tumultuous of seasons. It defies logic, beggars belief and yet it is so Chelsea that is it to be expected. Like that one relative who is hopelessly arrogant, completely untamed but impossibly adorable, Chelsea Football Club are utterly bonkers but unconditionally lovable.

Chelsea Football Club: Bonkers yet brilliant. Credit | Evening Standard
Chelsea Football Club: Bonkers yet brilliant. Credit | Evening Standard

A Seismic Seven Months

Only one elite club in Europe can go through the following sequence of events in the space of just under one season:

1 Oct 2020: Spend £220 million on a host of new players in the midst of a global pandemic.

5 Dec 2020: Go two points off the top of the Premier League after beating Leeds United 3-1.

8 Dec 2020: Qualify as undefeated group winners in the Champions League.

Dec 2020 – Jan 2021: Proceed to lose five out of eight Premier League games and descend to ninth.

26 Jan 2021: Sack their manager and former legendary player Frank Lampard.

27 Jan 2021: Hire a master tactician in Thomas Tuchel.

Jan – April 2021: Go a dozen games unbeaten and climb back into the Top Four.

3 April 2021: Lose 5-2 at home to nineteenth-placed West Bromwich Albion.

17 April 2021: Beat Manchester City, the finest team in Europe, to make an FA Cup Final against Leicester City.

Feb – May 2021: Beat the likes of Atletico Madrid, Porto and Real Madrid to make their first Champions League Final in nine years, conceding one goal in those matches.

13 May 2021: Lose to Arsenal at home in the league to jeopardise their Top Four chances.

15 May 2021: Lose the FA Cup Final they are favourites to win.

19 May 2021: Beat Leicester City in the next game to consolidate their Top Four chances.

23 May 2021: Lose to Aston Villa on the Final Day and rely on Tottenham beating Leicester to finish in fourth.

29 May 2021: Go into a Champions League Final against Manchester City as underdogs and beat them 1-0.

And that club can only be Chelsea.

There is seemingly no top club in European football with as innate a proclivity for undulation as the Blues. Owner Roman Abramovich’s tetchy trigger finger is world famous in football circles. Tuchel is the sixth mid-season managerial appointment in the Russian billionaire’s eighteen-year tenure.

More so than managerial upheavals, though, is this notion that Chelsea’s success does at times appear to come in spite of the way they operate and not because of it. In the club’s other European Cup-winning year, 2012, the narrative was eerily similar: floundering league form precipitated a managerial change which brought FA Cup and Champions League success.

Though managerial machinations have proven successful on the whole, 2021 is the season that, in a nutshell, demonstrates that the West London club, for all it’s magnificence, is equally capable of ignominy. Chelsea are European football’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

From Tuchel to Lampard: In with the Old and Out with the New

This dichotomous nature can be no better embodied by the juxtaposition in the managerial choice made in light of Frank Lampard’s departure. In the club legend, Chelsea had a very young, hungry, hard-working if occasionally naïve coach who looked set to learn on the job and finally provide the sustainability that many fans craved.

Lampard firmly set about instilling a policy, somewhat enforced by a transfer ban, of promoting exciting prodigies from the club’s academy. At odds with Abramovich’s ‘right now’ policy of success, it appeared the tide may be turning. For about twelve months, it did. Tammy Abraham, Mason Mount, Reece James, Fikayo Tomori, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Andreas Christensen – all academy graduates – formed the fulcrum of the side that qualified for the Champions League in 2019/20.

Coaching Contrast: From the young, hungry potential of Frank Lampard to the tenured tactician Thomas Tuchel. Credit | Telegraph UK
Coaching Contrast: From the young, hungry potential of Frank Lampard to the tenured tactician Thomas Tuchel. Credit | Telegraph UK

Come the conclusion of the pandemic-hit season, though, Chelsea resorted to a tried-and-tested policy of plucking the best talents from Europe. Savings under a transfer ban precipitated a £220m outlay on the likes of Kai Havertz, Ben Chilwell, and Edouard Mendy.

A relative novice, Lampard was handed the keys to a Ferrari fresh from getting his driver’s license. Five defeats in eight between December and late January meant, despite his status, he wasn’t to be spared. In his stead came a coach who couldn’t be more different.

Thomas Tuchel, a German coach of over two decades of extensive European coaching experience, signed on as his replacement. Recently let go by Paris Saint Germain, Tuchel was very much in the mould of a Chelsea coach. Tactically sound, meticulous, and possessing trophies galore, he was cherry picked from Europe’s elite, the opposite of his raw, prodigious predecessor.

The difference in ideologies further reinforce how maddening Chelsea can be. Lampard, a firm believer in an attacking, progressive and highly intense approach, set his sides up to be creative, to attack relentlessly and to be more open defensively. Tuchel, by contrast, provides his teams with a finite structural platform that makes them nearly impregnable if slightly less proficient on attack.

All out attack under Lampard seemingly led into a solid, highly structured defense under Tuchel. Dr. Jekyll, meet Mr. Hyde.

The Players: From Wilderness to Winners

As managers come and go, it is natural for different managers have preferences in certain players. One or two players can expect to receive increased playing time while others miss out. Once Tuchel came in and his philosophy took hold, the contrast in personnel choice between the German and Lampard was profound.

Favouring a three-at-the-back system, Tuchel immediately restored senior players to the lineup. Playing experience was meant to quell the upheaval, but the restoration of a player like Antonio Rudiger is emblematic of just how fortunes can change in West London.

A German international of a high calibre, Rudiger found his opportunities limited under Lampard. Just four starts in 19 Premier League games at the start of the season appeared to mean he was leaving the club. Enter compatriot Tuchel and Rudiger immediately becomes a key component. Starting nearly every game on the left side of a back three, his crowning moment came in the Champions League Final when he made a crucial block from City player Phil Foden early on.

His defensive counterpart, Kurt Zouma, was almost the inverse of this. A key member in Lampard’s back four, Zouma found chances hard to come by under Tuchel. Across the team, more players enjoyed contrasting fortunes. Midfielder Jorginho too lost his place only to regain as his new German coach saw value in his metronomic capacity to control a game’s tempo. Captain Azpilicueta was slowly being phased out in favour of Reece James at right back but slotted in at right centre back. From Pulisic to Havertz, Marcos Alonso to Andreas Christensen and even the much-maligned goalkeeper Kepa, several players gained from Tuchel’s arrival.

Change is inevitable under a new coach. The sheer magnitude of the contrast in personnel choice, though, and the subsequent upturn in form from previously isolated players reinforced the crazy nature of Chelsea at times.

The Results: Highest of Highs and Lowest of Lows

Consider the following facts: a team in the Premier League concedes eight goals to West Bromich Albion, takes one point from two games against both Aston Villa and Wolverhampton Wanderers and loses twice in the league to an Arsenal team that finish eighth. A team beats Atletico Madrid, FC Porto, Real Madrid and Manchester City in the knockout phase of the UEFA Champions League to win the competition, while conceding two goals in seven games.

Both are Chelsea. One iteration appears fallible. The other looks impregnable. Yet both occurred within the same season.

Lowest of Lows: Chelsea suffered a demoralising defeat at home to West Brom. Credit | Getty Images via Goal
Lowest of Lows: Chelsea suffered a demoralising defeat at home to West Brom. Credit | Getty Images via Goal

Peel back the layers of these results and the differences are more alarming. Take the home league games against West Bromwich Albion and Arsenal as well as the game away to Aston Villa on the final day of the league season into consideration. All under the watch of Tuchel, they reveal a curious truth about Chelsea: to make sense of the team is to try and extract oil from a tablecloth.

In the first game, Chelsea went into it unbeaten in ten league games. They set up in their 3-4-2-1 formation with a strong lineup. An early goal calmed matters before a questionable red card meant the Blues were down to ten. And cue the open floodgates. Emboldened, West Brom scored one after another to Chelsea’s chagrin.

Against Arsenal, Chelsea needed a win to consolidate a Top Four position. Dominating possession, territory, and chances, they were undone by one mistake. 1-0 and no way back. Defeat in the face of expectation again led to questions about the team’s mentality. When the going got tough on the last day against Aston Villa, the Blues again came up short as the Villans smothered Chelsea. A freak goal and a penalty had Chelsea reeling. A late consolation proved inconsequential as archnemesis Tottenham beat Leicester 4-2 on the last day to secure Champions League football for Chelsea.

All three results appeared to be a complete capitulation of a highly capable and very skilled team.

The Highest of Highs: Chelsea win the Champions League!

And yet, just four days after the West Brom game, Chelsea strangle FC Porto into submission via a 2-0 away win in the Champions League Quarter Final. The 1-0 defeat to Arsenal came a week after a 3-1 aggregate defeat of 13-time European Champions Real Madrid in a Semi Final. Just six days after the loss to Aston Villa, Chelsea hoist aloft their second European Cup by defeating arguably the best team in Europe in Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City.

The manner of the defeats juxtaposed from the glory of the wins; Chelsea showed in Europe a terrific ability to keep world class teams and attackers at bay. The likes of Karim Benzema, Luis Suarez, Sergio Oliveira, Kevin De Bruyne, Riyad Mahrez and Phil Foden were all kept quiet. Pit the same team against Callum Robinson, Anwar El Ghazi or Gabriel Martinelli, though, and the results are less terrific and more terrible.

It’s a Chelsea Thing

For the Chelsea fan, this paradox makes the joys indescribable and the despair incomprehensible. The Beautiful Game is so because of its simplicity, the wondrous narratives it weaves, and its constant state of flux. Chelsea can have all of these things and none of these things at the same time.

No club is as difficult to define, as frustrating to follow yet as brilliant to behold or as regular to reward as the one that plays at Stamford Bridge.

If there is one conclusion that can be drawn out of the 2020/21 season it is this: Chelsea Football Club are utterly bonkers.

And we love it.

Written and edited by Dan Hill (@idanknow05)

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