2018-03-05 08:15:04
On Soccer: Chelsea Spins Its Wheels in a Cycle of Its Own Making

08:15, March 05 197 0

MANCHESTER, England — On the sideline, in the pouring rain, Antonio Conte did not look much like a manager who supposedly no longer cares, who has apparently long since accepted that his time at Chelsea is nearly over. He shouted and he bawled, at his players and at the officials, at the situation and at the gods. If it is an act, it is a good one.

On the field, meanwhile, Chelsea’s players did not look as if they were harboring dark thoughts of rebellion. They might have struggled to lay a glove on Manchester City; they might have slipped, without much of a whimper, to a dour 1-0 defeat, but they made for strange revolutionaries.

They doggedly remained in shape. They determinedly tracked their runners. They did all they could not to be mesmerized, as so many have been this season, by the swirling patterns City can paint; they closed the space and they gritted their teeth. They stuck to the tasks Conte had given them. Prospective mutineers tend not to follow orders so well.

Whenever Chelsea finds itself stuck in a rut, whenever an occasional defeat becomes a run of them, it is easy to assume that the problem, and the solution, are the same as always, that history is about to repeat itself.

The manager must have lost the loyalty of the players. There must have been a breakdown in communication. The squad must be on the brink of insurrection. The solution is always, always, to fire the manager and start again.

It happened with José Mourinho, with Luiz Felipe Scolari, with André Villas-Boas, with Carlo Ancelotti and with Mourinho again, just a couple of years ago, when the club described the atmosphere at the training ground as one of “palpable discord.” So now it must be claiming Conte, too, just a few months after he won the Premier League.

It is a convincing diagnosis, and yet it is not one that is borne out by the symptoms. Conte remains animated and agitated during games. His players — perhaps apart from Eden Hazard — still fulfill his wishes. Against City, their lack of inspiration was not proof of their lack of trust in Conte, but of the opposite, if anything.

“They followed my instructions,” Conte said. “We prepared the game in this way: not to concede space between the lines, because when you play against City, you have to use the head, or you risk finishing the game in a bad way, conceding three or four.”

No, Conte’s relationship with his team is not a cause of Chelsea’s current malaise — it has lost four of its last five Premier League games, has won only twice since the turn of the year, and is now fifth in the league standings, 5 points adrift of Tottenham for the fourth and final Champions League spot — but a symptom of something broader and more complex, something that does not come with a straightforward solution.

In part, it is of Chelsea’s own making. It is not just the owner Roman Abramovich’s largess that has turned this club into a modern superpower, but the culture he has fostered, too.

The 21st-century Chelsea has never tolerated failure. Almost uniquely in England, it does not indulge philosophies, at least those that extend any further than simply winning. It does not offer patience, or — with one Portuguese exception — second chances. It has embraced short-termism, and thrived because of it.

All of that has brought four Premier League titles, a slew of F.A. Cups and, of course, the Champions League trophy that Abramovich always craved.

It does, though, come at a cost. This is a club where the players are inured to the idea that bust must always follow boom, and that, when it does, they will not be the ones held accountable.

There is an effect on managers, too, an awareness that whatever happens, they will not necessarily be the ones who have to deal with the fallout. Mourinho has always been a bright, but brief, burner, and Conte is in the same mold.

He can ask Hazard to play in a position he does not like, or write off forward Alvaro Morata, because their long-term happiness is not his concern. He can stoke tension with Abramovich’s adjutants because he does not have to think about their long-term relationship.

Introducing a new manager will not change that dynamic. It will simply allow it to lie dormant for another few months, another couple of seasons. A title might even follow, while it does. But it will return, sooner or later.

But all of this has been exacerbated by something Chelsea cannot control, something it will have to respond to if it wishes to keep pace not just with Manchester City, but Manchester United, too.

Chelsea has long been a creature of the Premier League era; it has helped to define the zeitgeist, and in return has been defined by it. In the 1990s, before Abramovich, Chelsea was in the vanguard as English soccer opened its doors and hearts to foreign players like never before. Ruud Gullit, Gianluca Vialli, Gianfranco Zola and the rest helped to usher in a new era, with Stamford Bridge as their launchpad.

In the 2000s, it was the arrival of Abramovich that transformed the landscape once again, kickstarting an inflationary spiral in the transfer market, laying down the blueprint for dozens of international owners hoping to use soccer for personal glory or political capital.

Now, though, it feels as if the world has moved on a little, and Chelsea is lagging behind. Abramovich is no longer the richest guy in the room: He has to compete with Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain in the transfer market, teams backed by entire nations. He is no longer decisive in the way he was a decade ago.

Instead, Chelsea has — admirably — set out to become self-sustaining. With only a slight air of a team determined to pull up the drawbridge as soon as the keep is full, it has become a keen advocate of Financial Fair Play.

The effect has been pronounced. Morata cost $80 million when he joined from Real Madrid last summer. It is a significant outlay, but one that City, United, Liverpool and even Arsenal would now regard as feasible. All four can offer wages comparable to those available at Stamford Bridge, too. Too often in the transfer market, Chelsea seems determined to buy in bulk, rather than shell out the premium figures now required for premium talent.

Likewise, the absence of an overarching philosophy is starting to look like a competitive disadvantage. It is no coincidence that Chelsea has lost ground, in two of the last three seasons, to teams with a discernible identity, rather than to those that are simply a patchwork of good players assembled by several different managers.

That is not to say that Chelsea is finished. It might beat Barcelona, and go on to win the Champions League. It might yet finish fourth, or even third, in the Premier League. It might appoint Luis Enrique or Max Allegri and win the title next year. But soon enough, without some sort of change, it will be here again, booming and busting, over and over.