“Champions of Europe, we know what we are!!”, the tune on the lips of Chelsea fans all over the globe after the club once again tasted sweet victory at the Estadio do Dragao on the biggest stage in world football, nine years after that night in Munich.
Arguably, one can say despite being underdogs for most in the knockout stages of the competition, this Chelsea side won the tournament with more control and in even classier fashion than the class of nine years ago. Just like in 2012, there has been an amazing turn of events culminating in the victory of the kings of the Kings road. The common denominator in both events? A mid-season managerial change. What happened to good old stability being the springboard for major success? Well, at Chelsea, things are very different and provide new perspective on exactly what does lead to creating a winning team.
A typically crazy season
The loss against Leicester City in January is painfully etched in memory. With Frank Lampard running out of ideas to deal with an alarming slump which began after defeat to Everton at Goodison park. In what was a highly attack minded line up, it was clear to see the team lacked cohesion, application and a clear plan. To make matters worse, Chelsea were totally devoid of luck, with what should have been a consolatory goal by Timo Werner being disallowed by VAR. In summary, it was a terrible evening and as soon as the final whistle was blown it was clear to all the Frank Lampard’s fate as Chelsea manager was sealed.
Strangely, the Chelsea board kept him in charge to oversee the FA cup tie at Stamford Bridge with Luton Town, which ultimately ended in a 3-1 victory in favor of the Blues. Just as Chelsea fans were trying to find within themselves the slightest granule of hope for their beloved team, there was a bolt from the blue. Frank Lampard was sacked, the morning after a victory. Though his sacking was inevitable at that point, the timing of it took so many fans by surprise. The release of articles relating to what led to his downfall was well choreographed. There were scathing accounts of how Frank fell out with Chelsea director Marina Granovskaia, and the fact insiders believed he would leave at the end of the previous season. In addition, there were stories of discontented fringe players at the time, most notably Antonio Rudiger, complaining to the board about Lampard’s inability to keep them involved in the team. Let us not forget the endless rumors about the belief amongst some players that there was favoritism in Frank Lampard’s team selections. Chelsea twitter was an extremely toxic place as abuse was aimed towards players who were perceived to have undermined the managerial reign of the legendary midfielder.
So who was to replace Frank Lampard? Many names were banded around, including Germans Ralf Rangnick and Julian Nagelsmann, as there was the belief that they could get the best out of Chelsea’s two high profile German signings Werner and Kai Havertz who were massively underperforming under Lampard.
However, it was another German who claimed the spot in the Stamford Bridge dug out. Thomas Tuchel. After being sacked by PSG on Christmas eve, the former Borussia Dortmund and Mainz coach, alongside his assistants most notably Arno Michels and Zsolt Low was willing to make a quick return into management. Despite being given an 18 month contract, far shorter than he had expected, he was ready to take up the challenge to rescue the top four hopes of a floundering Chelsea side, as well as attempt to achieve success in the FA cup and the highly coveted Champions League.
In just four months, Thomas Tuchel did not only meet club targets, he exceeded them by going a step further to cement himself in Chelsea folklore by beating Europe’s biggest and best managers on the way to a Champions League triumph in Porto. Tuchel and Chelsea’s success goes against all the common narratives about reaching the pinnacle of club football , mainly the concepts of stability and long term projects with the mantra, “trust the process”, as constantly referred to by the fans of a certain irrelevant club in London.
It’s a Chelsea thing
The Chelsea way of getting to the top is truly unconventional because it is driven by a steely determination to win in the shortest possible time, even if it means pulling the trigger on a relatively new managerial appointment, and even more cruelly as we saw this season, a club legend.
Chelsea never ever rest on their laurels in their search for success. The Chelsea DNA just does not allow complacency. And the club has stayed true to these values throughout the Abrahmovich era. However, after the Champions League triumph in 2012, the club went through a massive slump on the elite European stage, failing to reach the tournament on two occasions, getting eliminated in the group stages in 2013 (although it ultimately led to Europa League success in Amsterdam), and failing to advance past the semi finals, quarter finals and round of 16 in the years 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2018 respectively.
The club had become notorious for neglecting their numerous academy products, relying on the signings of expensive foreign talents to strengthen league winning teams. Remember Davide Zappacosta, Tiemoue Bakayoko, Alvaro Morata and Papy Djilobodji just to name a few? They certainly were not value for money and did not advance the squad in any way. Then in 2019, the day every Chelsea fan dreaded came. After investigations into the signing of underage players were carried out by FIFA, Chelsea were banned from registering new signings for two transfer windows. At the time it seemed like the West London club was set for doom, but little did most fans know it would be the springboard for success.
With the transfer ban came the appointment of club legend Frank Lampard as head coach. Frank believed strongly in giving the youth a chance and brought through a group of academy players now refered to as the “Cobham five”. Spearheaded by Mason Mount, youngsters Tammy Abraham, Reece James, Fikayo Tomori and Billy Gilmour were blooded into the first team. With the former making the most appearances out of any other Chelsea player in the 2019/20 season. Abraham hit 15 league goals and broke the number 9 curse at the club and James, Tomori and Gilmour all put in stellar performances in different parts of the season. With a team consisting of mainly younger and inexperienced players, Lampard delivered a top four finish and an FA cup final, which was very impressive considering all the circumstances at the time.
The 2020 summer transfer window was tough for many, the pandemic had hit the pockets of Europe’s biggest clubs hard making it difficult for them to improve their squads. But at Chelsea, let’s just say after sleeping for a few years the beast roared back into life. Roman Abrahmovich, with the help of his trusted aide Marina Granovskaia, invested heavily in the market to steal a march on their rivals. A massive squad reinforcement drive saw seven players, namely Ben Chilwell, Timo Werner, Kai Havertz, Thiago Silva, Hakim Ziyech, Edouard Mendy and Malang Sarr arrive at Stamford Bridge.
The European football scene was truly stunned and rival fans were clearly shaken. Each signing went through difficult patches and received heavy criticism. They were all called flops at different stages of the season. But in the end there was vindication for all of them, with Kai Havertz most notably repaying the record fee Chelsea shelled out for him with one swoosh of his fluorescent green boots to win Chelsea the Champions League. The way to winning the Champions League for Chelsea required returning to their ruthless best on the transfer market. And it has been fast tracked by making use of the world class academy products at Cobham.
So what is the lesson from all this? Well, it is glaringly obvious that in order to win a club must stay true to its roots, its DNA, what truly makes it tick. Chelsea know ruthless pursuit of winning is their way, and they have stayed true to it and it has worked excellently for them. There must also be a willingness to adapt. Chelsea turned to youth when they could not invest on the market and it served as a catalyst for European success. Football clubs must forge their own identity and live by it to succeed. The slightest deviation and the development of mediocrity could create huge problems and a never ending slump. Success is not powered by managerial stability, but by the preservation and adaptation of the core identity of a club.
Written by Kwabena Budu (@kwabenzz)
Edited by Tom Coley (@tomcoley49)
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