May 2010 seems such a long way off, if you are connected to Chelsea. Carlo Ancellotti won the title in his first season with just a point to spare, but scoring over a hundred goals in the process. By so doing, they delayed Manchester United’s 19th league title and some spoke of a new chapter starting in Chelsea’s history. What has happened since shows the folly of looking too far ahead, and that title victory – including the FA Cup win a week later – papered over the cracks of a team in decline. In a sense, one is reminded of AC Milan’s revenge over Liverpool in 2007, that also masked a team in decline, and made those in charge think they could carry on with an ageing side. Carlo was in charge then at Milan as well, and some of the parallels would not have been lost on him. For all the cosmetic changes in the summer, the fact remains that this Chelsea team still carries Jose Mourinho’s imprint, unable to play any other way than the cautious, reactive style that led them to six trophies in just over 3 years, as well as their peak in 2008. They have since fallen further and further away from Roman Abramovich’s aim of winning the Champions’ League: after Terry’s slip in Moscow, they were unable to close out the game against Barca’s 10 men in 2009, and were beaten home and away, first by Inter Milan, then by Manchester United in 2010 and earlier this year.
A solid, steady start to the season under Andre Villas-Boas has been forgotten after 4 defeats in the league. In Europe, they face a winner (or score draw) take all game against Valencia at Stamford Bridge, where they have lost twice this season already. His commitment to a more proactive style of play marked by pressing high up the pitch, has made the decline of several senior players more apparent, and this has been ruthlessly taken advantage of by higher quality opponents.
Carlo Ancellotti was not given the resources necessary to remake the team in his image, and precious little has been given to the younger man to rejuvenate the squad. As the clouds gather over Stamford Bridge, the vultures are not far behind, fueling speculation about his future to sell papers and get hits on their websites and blogs.
Irrespective of the truth or falsehood of these rumours, the fact is that sacking Ancellotti was a mistake, just like sacking Villas-Boas, or doing anything other than backing him fully in words and actions would be a mistake as well. The reason is simple: The Mourinho machine, the foundation on which Chelsea’s most successful period was built has to be dismantled. It is overdue. This process should have started after the final whistle at Wembley in May 2010, but the joy of the double put paid to any serious introspection, just like the joy of a European triumph stopped an inquest in Milan.
Once in place, Villas-Boas’ approach to the game will prove difficult to beat, but it is difficult to implement to begin with and will take time, especially with the personnel he has. Players like Anelka, Drogba, Malouda, Lampard, Terry and Ashley Cole have to either depart or accept reduced roles in the team for the club to move forward. From time to time they will be capable of purple patches, leading their supporters to say they have more to offer, but the consistency that once won titles is a receding memory.
The reluctance to break with the past is understandable. The vast majority of fans have only seen this much success with one core group of players, and the fear of the unknown is there, but it is in the interest of all connected to Chelsea to close the Mourinho chapter once and for all.