I made my predictions on the website’s Title Predictor this evening – and guess what? We won the league! So that’s alright then.
OK. Back to reality. The last week – well, in fact most of this year since the end of January – has been a wake-up call. And like most of us when we’ve just woken up, it’s not a pretty sight.
There’s been a nagging unease for some time that something, somewhere wasn’t quite right. Perhaps the way we’ve been conceding goals after dominating the early part of games, failing to capitalise on our leads, and losing too many games from winning positions – it should have shown us that we were starting to run on empty.
The Inter games showed us the truth in all its naked ugliness. Mourinho, as you’d expect him to, had taken stock of us and knew exactly how to beat us. Yes, he out-thought Ancelotti – but it was more than that. There was nothing Ancelotti could do because he didn’t have the quality of players he needed to beat Inter with.
Now that’s a dreadful admission. We thought we had the best squad in Europe – or at least one of the best. We had a squad that only last year could, should and without the intervention of a certain Norwegian ref, probably would have won the Champions League. How can it have got so much worse so quickly?
The answer is, it hasn’t. It’s just got older. And that’s the problem. Our players are no longer able to perform at the highest level for two games a week, week in, week out. It shows in the tired legs, the less than immaculate passing, the inability to hit teams on the break when we need to. We’ve been hit by injuries to crucial players like Essien and Ashley Cole, true – but in years past, we’ve coped with that, taken it in our stride. Now we can’t.
The evidence is clear. We won every game in January. Why? Well, we didn’t have a single week where we played two games. Since then we’ve suffered – almost always, when we’ve been trying to recover from a game a couple of days earlier.
So what to do? Something we really should have been doing over the last two summers. Rebuild the squad. Not completely, but we need to bring in fresh blood and cut out not just the deadwood, but those players who are beginning to go stale. I think we need to look at every part of the squad and see what needs doing.
Goalkeepers – Cech, despite his extremely vocal detractors, is top-class and can go on for years. Turnbull has surprised everyone by looking like a decent reserve. Hilario? Time to move on.
Defence – Ashley Cole is in my opinion, the best defender in the world – we must keep him. Ivanovic is young and has impressed. Alex has done well. JT – there is an argument that we should sell him for a big fee, as he’s probably at or past his peak – but as far as I’m concerned we’ll need him as a leader for the next few years. So keep. Carvalho – we should have moved him on last summer when we might have gone some money for him. He’s still very good, but definitely past his peak and we need to bring in younger players. Thankfully, both Mancienne and Bruma are talented enough to fit the bill. As for the others – I’d keep Bosingwa unless we need to raise cash, but we must offload Belletti and Ferreira. It’s not that they are bad players, it’s just that they take squad places from younger players who will be needed for the club’s future.
Midfield is where the main problem lies, in my view. Mikel and Essien can be the basis of the midfield for years. But there is a problem at the heart – and it lies with Lampard and Ballack, and (when he plays) Deco. Let’s get the easy bit out of the way. Deco should never have been bought. He was past his best when we got him, and was only going to get worse (and he has). It’s not his fault, he’s just not what we need, and never was. Ballack was also bought too late – he had a couple of seasons left in him, and now contributes little. Time to go.
In theory, that should leave room for Joe Cole. But my patience with him has run dry – and so it seems has Ancelotti’s. We keep waiting for him to put in the sort of performances he’s occasionally hinted at. But all too often he disappoints. My feeling is that if he were going to become a truly great player, he’d have done so by now. It’ll be hard to see him go, but maybe it is time to cut our losses – and find a player who really will unlock defences the way Joe was supposed to. Kakuta, anyone?
Now the difficult bit. Frank Lampard has been central to all that has been fantastic about Chelsea in the last 5 years. He is the fulcrum of the team, the cog it all works around. Except this season. For large parts of this season, he’s looked out of sorts – and that’s especially true right now, when we need him most. His faltering performances have been the single biggest cause of the midfield engine room failing to get us going. And yet – when he’s on form, he’s still our most important player. Should we keep him and hope he finds one or two more good seasons? My hunch is that we should – and that with younger midfielders around him to take the strain, he can still be that vital pump at the heart of the team.
Then there’s the strikers. You’d be nuts to get rid of Drogba, wouldn’t you? Well… maybe not. His performance level (not to mention his transfer value) will drop soon. He takes a lot of punishment from defenders and some day, it will take its toll. However, he is still the best in the world at what he does, so replacing him may well prove impossible. Then there’s Anelka. On song, he’s my favourite player to watch. Abundant skill, devastatingly intelligent movement, calm, selfless and prolific. But since January, he’s been off the boil – and you have to wonder whether he’ll recapture his form. Besides, do you really want both of your frontline strikers in their 30s? One, maybe. But both?
Assuming we do keep them, what about the second string? Kalou’s the right age – but is anyone really convinced he’s got the talent to dislodge either Drogba or Anelka as first-choice? The trouble is, he shows flashes of brilliance – but lots of carelessness and stupidity. I can’t see that he’s improving, and if it were up to me, we’d take the biggest offer we can get for him. Sturridge, I think, can and may well be the real deal. But he needs a season or two to reach the level we need. So in the meantime, we need to find a young-ish striker who can arguably be considered as good enough to be first-choice? There’s this bloke at Atletico Madrid who’s not too bad, apparently…
As for Ancelotti, there’s a huge debate about whether he’s got what it takes. My main worry with him is that he tends to be reactive rather than pro-active during games. That was highlighted in the Inter games, when Mourinho took them by the scruff of the neck, changed tactics and made substitutions to make the game go the way he wanted. Ancelotti waited until things were going wrong before he made changes. He did the same against Blackburn at the weekend. But in general, he’s set the team out well, allowed them to play dominating, assured football – and if it’s not always as fluid as we’d like to see, maybe that’s more down to the players than the manager. But anyway, I’d argue we have to keep him. We cannot afford another summer of managerial upheaval. We need to focus on squad rebuilding – and we can’t do that if we have yet another new manager trying to work out what he’s got to work with, trying to convince the board about a whole load of new targets, and probably trying to learn English at the same time. It’s why we’ve failed to rebuild when we should have – this may be our last chance to get it right.
So that’s Ancelotti to stay. Hilario, Carvalho, Ferreira, Belletti, Deco, Ballack and Kalou out (I may have missed a couple). Bruma, Kakuta and possibly Stoch, Matic and Mancienne to move up into the squad. And some new multi-million pound players in their early 20s please, Roman. If it’s not too much to ask.
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