2011/12 Campaign (6th in the Premier League)
The last season for Chelsea can be best described as an extended Batman metaphor. Andre Villas-Boas played the part of The Joker – wise and intellectual, no doubt, but with an immaturity and a nonchalant attitude towards the acceptance of any wrong-doing that perhaps led to his own demise – an infant capability to deal with mature situations, possibly. Roman Abramovich was Lucius Fox, providing endless material investment in the hope that his prized interest came good. Roberto Di Matteo featured late on as Alfred Pennyworth – reliable and convenient, but with the knowledge required of Gotham (Chelsea) to make a positive impact. Didier Drogba as the Batman – the expected and long-proven hero, who, despite fading and lurking in purple patches only briefly, gave one last gallant effort to save his side. And, lastly, a humble mention for Fernando Torres who would’ve done well to get cast as Robin – the boy/El Nino, but most importantly the supporting actor.
As it was, Batman did save the day once more and this time it was the bow-out to outdo all that came before it. With speculation rife since Christmas that Didier Drogba would eventually depart Chelsea for Shanghai Shenhua, the Ivorian striker had one last chance to earn Roman Abramovich what he had always intended to win from Day One – The Champions League. The Russian’s love affair with the prestigious award had seen previous managers fall before AVB and the Portuguese’s 3-1 defeat to Italian side Napoli in the last sixteen of the European Cup may have gone some way to seal his fate. Eleven days later he was sacked, not even a year into his three year contract that had cost Chelsea £13.3m in the first place from Porto. His interim replacement, Di Matteo oversaw A last 16 turnaround and a march towards Champions League glory, which was sealed with a penalty shootout win against German side Bayern Munich.
The league finish was not as pretty: bemoaned by journalists as “aging” when they were playing and lost, and “vital missing experienced players” when they weren’t playing but Chelsea lost, The Blues pulled up in sixth come the end of the season. It was their lowest finish since Roman Abramovich purchased the club nearly ten years ago. However, this was deemed AVB’s doing and as a duly reward for winning the Champions League, Roberto Di Matteo was hired permanently as the manager at Stamford Bridge.
As aforementioned, for some time now, Chelsea’s side has been labeled “aging” and/or “experienced,” depending on the bias needed. Last season it was more the former than the latter. Chelsea’s average age was 28.9-years old. Their youngest regular was 22 year old Daniel Sturridge, but, more often than not, six of their starting line-up were the wrong side of 30.
In practice, only three sides had an older average age: Everton (30 years old), Fulham (31.5) and QPR (29.5). However, all five teams above Chelsea had significantly lower average ages. Premier League winners Manchester City had an average age of just 26.6, only beaten by Newcastle (26.4) & Arsenal (26.1.) It seemed to compete at the top an injection of youth was urgently needed.
Much of the youth at Arsenal has been bought in at a young age, sometimes waiting years for them to breakthrough, and often cheaply. Manchester United had, by the end of the season, four academy produced players in their starting line-up and a further five that joined the club before their 20th birthday. Manchester City are Chelsea’s financial Achilles heel, if Arsenal and United (or more specifically Wenger and Ferguson) are their youth development weakness, when it comes to investment in the future.
From 2004 to 2010, Chelsea’s wage expenditure accounted for 14% of the Premier League’s total expenditure on wages (think that the average expenditure per club would be circa 5%). Manchester City’s, as was United’s, was closer to 10%. Therefore, considering wage expenditure has the most influential effect on final league position, it’s no surprise Chelsea won the Premier League the most times during this period. It is the largest share of total league wage expenditure of any club across Europe in the past 37 years.
However, now the momentum has swung: for seven years Chelsea could outspend anyone in the Premier League – and did – yet now Manchester City are outspending them and they possess the highest wage bill in the Premier League. Again, it is no surprise they are Champions.
Yet, capitalising on their Champions League success, Chelsea are striking first theis summer and are striking in the right direction, purchasing players that average an age of 20.75 years old: Thorgen Hazard (19), Oscar (20), Eden Hazard (20) & Marko Marin (23). Furthermore, all four signings go straight to the heart of the problem – the sometimes degenerate Chelsea midfield. Considering they last year purchased Romelu Lukaku (19), Thibaut Courtois (20), Juan Manuel Mata (24) and Kevin De Bruyne (21), last year’s aging Chelsea could very quickly become this year’s youthful Chelsea. Stealing Hazard from under the noses of Manchester City may further signal at another twist in the power struggle at the top of the Premier League and between the two mega-rich oil oligarchies and 18 year old Lucas Piazon may just prove to be another surprise package next season, featuring in three of Chelsea’s four preseason games to date, scoring one in the process.
With Wigan striker Victor Moses, Shakhtar Donestk midfielder Willian and Marseille right-back Cesar Azpilicueta all strongly linked with a move to Stamford Bridge too, even if they don’t move to London, it signifies that Chelsea are still not content, despite a £65m summer spending spree.
Their preseason fixtures to date have been of a mixed outcome. Having won 1, drawn 1 and lost 2 (in that order), momentum is hardly being gathered for the start of the new season. However, with Oscar and Juan Manuel Mata on Olympic duty anyway, alongside Oriel Romeu, Daniel Sturridge and Ryan Bertrand, expect most of the valuable preseason preparations to occur between now and August 18th.
With signings unveiled and more expected, Chelsea are clearly going about the transition project that Andre Villas Boas so openly talked about and so quickly used to justify his actions and failures. Providing it is more suitably handled than last season – more Sir Alex Ferguson like than AVB, if you wish – a serious title challenge can be mounted.
With their ever-present source of goals now plying his trade in China, heads will turn to a new man to lead the Chelsea line. An impressive, if still somewhat sparse, tournament showing from Fernando Torres, which saw him collect the Golden Boot for Euro 2012 as his nation won it back-to-back, will have done wonders for not only the striker’s confidence but the people who matter’s belief in him, too. Daniel Sturridge has previously expressed his desire to play a more central role for Chelsea, currently operating on the wings of The Blues’s front three and with new signing Oscar stating he will play anywhere to get a game, Di Matteo will certainly benefit from a flush of choices in the forward department, if not fluidity at least.
If one more signing had to be made by Chelsea a right-back would be the priority. Whilst John Terry, David Luiz, Gary Cahill and Branislav Ivanovic are all superb world-class centre-backs, the former most is, although by no means old at 31, not the iconic world beater he once was and the latter most is by far a better player in the centre than he is at right-back and Jose Bosingwa was simply not title-winning material for the right-back slot and was thus released. With Ashley Cole still one of football’s finest left-backs, it really does leave just the right-back position to be addressed. If it can be, a fourth title in ten years is a very real possibility.