Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it took many years for it to fall to the ever-advancing barbarian hordes. It’s commonly accepted that there are a number of reasons why the empire collapsed, from economic troubles to overexpansion, as well as corruption and instability at the top.
At Stamford Bridge, another Italian with huge promise appears to be on his last legs. Chelsea has painstakingly tried to remodel over the last decade, but player power has led to a lack of foundation and all the solidity of a wobbly Jenga tower.
The Roman era could be coming to an abrupt end. But is it time for the Blues' banter years, and was Jamie Carragher on the money when he said they were “turning into Arsenal” under Maurizio Sarri this season? The players have stood as the one constant throughout the past few years, but it’s arguably been detrimental to the team as a whole.
“Player power” was celebrated when the paradigm shifted after the Bosman rule in 1995, with the scales tipped further with an increase in player value over the last two decades. The reliance on key members of the Chelsea squad had also worked in the past, with the likes of John Terry, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba, and Petr Cech integral to their sole Champions League win back in 2012.
A core of the same players had made it clear they struggled to work with the highly-rated André Villas-Boas just a few months before, and Roberto Di Matteo was shipped in to keep the team happy during a crucial stage of their run to the final. Di Matteo has struggled ever since, which gives credence to the idea that the players dragged the team across the line against all odds.
From the boards perspective, it makes sense to keep faith in star players, who are much harder to replace than the latest manager to take charge for a year or two before the boat starts rocking.
Fast forward to 2015, and Jose Mourinho’s league winners had lost 9 of 16 league games while hovering closer to the relegation spots with each passing week. Something had to give, and “The Special One” was given his marching orders at the club where he was regarded as a hero by the vast majority of supporters. As usual, members of the squad seemed to give up, refusing to buy into Mourinho’s mantra of us against them. The same was true for Antonio Conte, despite his record-breaking run while earning Chelsea’s latest league title in 2016-17.
The team grew tired of Conte’s combative style according to insider reports, while the disconnect was easy to see with in terms of diminishing returns on the pitch. Key personnel wasn’t brought in to strengthen a title-winning team who also had to contend with midweek Champions League games, and the ones who stayed had clearly had enough. It was time to say goodbye to another title-winning manager, and he was thanked for the seasono. Each time the players eventually emerged as the victors, and they’ll likely do so again if they continue to lose by record-breaking amounts.
Football fans generally aren’t as fickle as the reactionary social media bubble would have most believe. When Mourinho was fired, the three alleged ringleaders were taken to task by supporters, despite Diego Costa, Cesc Fabregas, and Eden Hazard being arguably the most talented of the bunch. A majority of fans felt the same way about Conte, grateful for the job he did when dragging the team back to the top in his first season in English football.
However, Maurizio Sarri could be the latest sacrificial lamb to pay the price following embarrassing away defeats to Bournemouth and Manchester City since the turn of the new year. Between them, the two sides put ten past Kepa in the Chelsea goal with no reply. The signs are there, and the squad seems disinterested if and when they go a goal down.
“Sarri-ball” quickly goes out of the window, replaced by aimless crosses into the box and toothless possession. It’s distressing for Chelsea fans to see the teams’ regression over the past year, and they just can’t seem to follow Sarri’s instructions in a similar style to his Empoli and Napoli squads of the past.
Unlike his predecessors, he doesn’t have a title to fall back on, and the whispers are growing ever louder. His time looks to be over, so it could be a case of history repeating itself at the Bridge. Another loss against Manchester United in the FA Cup led to abuse from both sets of supporters, and there are rumors that Gianfranco Zola could take over for the rest of the season. His credentials aren’t the best, but maybe he’ll find a way to make the team gel more effectively.
There’s a toxic element to the current Chelsea squad, which boils over too easily if they’re frustrated by the opposition. Hazard is pandered to as a real difference maker, yet he continues to court Real Madrid more vigorously with each passing transfer window. On the other wing, Willian was quick to get into a social media storm following the dismissal of Conte but he still hasn’t managed to get more than six assists in a season despite being there since 2013-14.
Half of the squad seem to have regressed rapidly, although they’re still in with a decent chance of finishing in the top four. It's a poor season only by their own high standards, and a clear shame after they started so promisingly in the first few months of Sarri's tenure.
For all the talk of Sarri’s philosophy and his past accomplishments, his rigidity is plain for everyone to see, and it’s disappointing that he hasn’t experimented more in terms of team selection and substitutions. He was brought in to change the style of football, and he's failed to get Chelsea ticking so far. Even so, getting rid of the manager would only be a short-term solution.
The club needs players who actually want to wear the shirt, with too much professional pride to ever think of giving a half-hearted performance. You only have to look to the example of Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son at Tottenham to see what it looks like when star players and their manager are fully in tandem.
A restructuring period is expensive, but would allow for long-term planning - especially if they kept Sarri on. It's the least likely scenario, and that should be a worry for Chelsea fans if they miss out on the Champions League spots in May.