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Thursday, January 15, 2009
Chelsea's identity crisis

Norman Hubbard

His appointment was supposed to signal a change of direction, but his team appear to have found reverse gear. He was brought in to transform Chelsea, to win the worldwide battle for hearts and minds as well as football matches; instead, the fundamental difference could be that, for the first time in five seasons, the title race is concluded without the Blues in the top two and possibly even the podium positions. His recruitment was supposed to herald an era of stability after the aura of uncertainty that surrounded Avram Grant. Now Luiz Felipe Scolari looks less like a long-term appointment and more like another unable to emulate Jose Mourinho. At least, after overcoming Southend, the World Cup winner can still dream of becoming an FA Cup winner. Yet with defeat to Manchester United resulting in big damage (Scolari's own words) to Chelsea's title bid, a policy of honesty has revealed the scale of his disappointment. A run of mediocre form that only yielded two wins in eight games led the manager to conclude that some of his players were only operating at between 35 and 50% of their potential. Concession of goals from set-pieces in four successive games is only one sign of that. Chelsea, once the team with the greatest mental strength around, have discovered an unwelcome fragility and subsided alarmingly easily at Old Trafford. It is part of a rebranding exercise that has taken on an unexpected appearance. Once the masters of the 1-0 victory, they have not won a Premier League game by that scoreline since August. Long assumed to be unbeatable at Stamford Bridge, their home record is now inferior to Fulham's and Stoke's. After the Machiavellian Mourinho and the grim Grant, they opted for a manager who acquired a reputation as an arch-pragmatist in his native land, but appears to have adopted the role of the carefree comedian in England. Chelsea, in short, have an identity crisis. They have ceded their place as the world's richest club to one Mancunian collective and that of the Premier League's dominant force to another. They have gone from relentless consistency to public admissions of underachievement. As Scolari is discovering, events spiral out of control quicker at Chelsea than most other clubs. That is a consequence of being owned by the super-rich, even if such resources are unavailable to Scolari. He has a substantial transfer-market profit, but Chelsea's vast wage bill and previous heavy expenditure accounts for the expectations. He could be forgiven for wondering if the turning point in Chelsea's season actually occurred on September 1, when Manchester City's takeover permitted them to gazump Scolari and sign Robinho. The Brazilian's invention may have defeated the packed defences who have prospered at Stamford Bridge; his signing would have enabled Scolari to remodel the side with his recruits. Instead, Deco aside, he is operating with the players he inherited. The World Cup winner's one tactical change, by liberating Ashley Cole and Jose Bosingwa, proved devastating initially but, since Liverpool pegged the overlapping full-backs back, others have followed suit. As only Joe Cole of the designated wingers creates enough, confining Ashley Cole and Bosingwa to their own half has left Chelsea lacking width. As they rarely required Wayne Bridge or Shaun Wright-Phillips when they owned them, it would be erroneous to claim either are missed, but there is a shortage of natural left-footers and players who favour the flanks. With Mourinho's system and the Portuguese's personnel, an unbalanced squad has limited his options and made a 4-3-3 formation most likely. However, continual attempts to cram Deco, Michael Ballack and Frank Lampard into the same side have exacerbated the congestion in the central areas. Where Scolari can be queried is in his reluctance to pair Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka as out-and-out strikers - perhaps ahead of a midfield diamond - without shunting the Frenchman out to the wing. When the Premier League's leading scorer is left out, meanwhile, there has been the sense that it was not a meritocracy. For all Drogba's formidable attributes, did he earn selection ahead of Anelka at Old Trafford? Mourinho used the phrase "untouchables". Scolari has found it easier to omit Salomon Kalou, Juliano Belletti and Alex and simpler to substitute Joe Cole than upset the automatic choices. It was only by dropping Drogba at Southend that he showed signs of becoming confrontational. The experience of the side may make Chelsea's an awkward dressing room for a manager, but there has been too little player power on the pitch recently. The aged nature of side may account for a flurry of late goals at the wrong end and a lack of vitality - the full-backs, Anelka and the injured Michael Essien aside, none boast blistering pace - but big reputations and big egos have produced too few big performances for Big Phil. A return of one point from four games against their title rivals is evidence they have failed the major tests. Ballack, Deco and, especially, Drogba have made too meagre a contribution recently. The simplest measure of dissatisfaction with their displays is in the team selection. The threat of a stint of the bench should galvanise others and a willingness to cast Drogba aside would be a show of strength. So when Scolari exited Old Trafford promising change, it was a belated recognition of its necessity. He does not have the option - and has commendably refused to moan about it - of reinforcements, though the return of Essien would be welcome. Renewal has to come from within and the Chelsea owner's policy of signing established stars has hindered his manager now some are showing signs of decline. Lacking major investment, the long-term prognosis for Chelsea is unhealthy but, however much they claim otherwise, they have not excelled at long-term planning. In the immediate future, it is time for Scolari to justify his act. More ruthlessness is required if Chelsea are to reverse their slide. A manager who arrived with a reputation for fearlessness has proved too great a respecter of reputations. He has been more the eccentric immigrant than the Brazilian hard man. Now it is time for Scolari to be Big Phil.

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