For all of Chelsea’s historic moments in her 111 years of existence, it is hard to think of another season of greater importance than the one which has just past. It will go down as one of the most shocking collapses in footballing history, reminiscent of the collapse of the Trojans in Greek mythology, and yet it might it just lead to Chelsea becoming the greatest club in Europe.
Even the most talented football minds in the world would struggle to explain this. After all it was only in May 2015 everyone in the footballing establishment were lauding the emergence of a team that could dominate English and European football for seasons to come. They said Courtois was unbeatable, Terry the commander, Fabregas the visionary, Hazard the magician, Costa the striker that struck fear in every defenders heart and of course then there was Jose Mourinho, the ‘special one’. This was a Chelsea team that was called ‘indomitable’, a team that could rival the Invincibles of Arsenal and Mourinho was a manager who was to take over Sir Alex Ferguson’s legacy of success. Commentators were running out of superlatives and football fans across the world were in awe and yet just a few months later this same great team crashed, in the most shocking way possible.
Much like the fall of the Trojans, Chelsea’s collapse came from within the walls of the clubs. They say that there is a fine line between being a genius and being crazy. Jose Mourinho well and truly crossed that line this season; the master of mind-games ended up himself being the victim of the very games he created. Always known for his aggressive stance towards referees, this season he turned the fire on the very people he needs the loyalty of. In the very first game of the season his outburst at Eva Carneiro, the now former Chelsea medical assistant, for doing her job set the tone for a season that would be marred with internal conflict.
Against Manchester City he took off John Terry, the ‘captain, leader and legend’ of the club, at half time, claiming that he wasn’t quick enough to deal with the pace Premier League football. He would go on to blame players for lacking the discipline to execute his tactical plans and against Leicester it culminated in him directly accusing the squad of disloyalty. Mourinho was dismissed from his job just a few days later. His dictatorial and increasingly reckless behaviour had not only turned the footballing world against him, but also the staff and players he relies on. No manager can survive without the support of his players and staff; however popular he may be with the fans, it was obvious Mourinho had to go.
The depressing thing is that Mourinho’s inability to control his temper was not the only problem he had. He seemed to have lost his touch with even the most basic parts of the job. Pre-season training was shambolic. It started late, lacked rigour and by the start of season none of the players were fit. Another problem that was far more endemic was in the Mourinho philosophy of football. His desire to push his players to the limit and simultaneously only work with a small squad means that Mourinho teams often begin to rot by their third season. This has been true of every club he has ever been at. Chelsea’s squad has been axed repeatedly since his return and this season beyond the starting eleven there was very little to work with. Juan Mata, Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku, Ryan Betrand, Petr Cech, David Luiz and Andre Schurrle are examples of players the club desperately needed this season. Most of them are now at rival clubs. Mourinho’s reluctance to use youth, or to develop any player for that matter, has led to over 30 players being sent out on loan. The damaging consequence of these decisions was a squad lacking in number and in character.
For the first time in his career, the special one did not seem all that special.
Of course the players themselves cannot be exempt from blame. Whatever troubles they may have had with Mourinho, when you earn as much as they do, the least you expect is effort in every game. At times this season players such as Hazard, Costa, Oscar and Fabregas did not seem to care for the outcome of a match. Other players like Ivanovic were in the worst form imaginable. Put those two types of players together with an insane manager and any team would struggle.
The master of crisis management, yet again Chelsea should be grateful to Guus Hiddink.
It is for all of these reasons above that Guus Hiddinks revival of the club is so impressive. On the face of it finishing tenth in the Premier League and failing in every cup competition is awful. But Hiddink has proven himself to be a master in crisis management. He did it in 2009 and he has done it again now. He leaves a club with the players back working hard for the club, stability and a clear sense of direction going forward. His unquestionable integrity has also helped to rebuild Chelsea’s image. Perhaps his biggest contribution has been to break the taboo of young players breaking into the team. Thanks to Hiddink, come the start of next season Kurt Zouma will be a first eleven player and Kenedy, Loftus-Cheek and Traore will be essential first team material. Other players from the academy will also be knocking on the door; finally Chelsea’s academy, the best in Europe, will be churning out talent for the club instead of for others. Hiddinks public call for the next manager to make use of Chelsea’s loan army is also going to be invaluable. Nathan Ake, Juan Cuadrado, Marco Van Ginkel, Mohammad Salah, Anders Christensen, Charly Musonda and Lewis Baker are all examples of players who could immediately add value to the squad. If you add to this the extra money Chelsea will have from a mega deal with Nike and nearly £100 million worth of lame-duck loan players to sell, then it is clear to see this awful season has a bright silver lining.
Antonio Conte will be taking over the best positioned club in world football. He will have money, the star players, the best academy in the world and world class players already on the books on loan. If he uses it properly, and it is a big if, this might just be the beginning of Chelsea’s real domination of European football.
By Nima Amin.
(Images: The Telegraph/The Daily Mail)