We are on the brink of another season. May seems like an era ago.
Since then, clubs have sold and bought players. New, promising managers have arrived with a suitcase of visions, and have started unpacking them into pre-season. Fans and football writers spend their days sighing, and speculating how these changes will impact the next season’s storyline. Will the heroes remain heroes? Will the underdogs rise?
Except at Stamford Bridge.
Through six managers in seven seasons, the story has remained almost the same. Chelsea is a club in chronic transition; they just make it into the Champions League every alternate season and wins the odd trophy by the skin of their teeth. We know this with near-certainty.
The Difficulty of Escaping Transition
Things look better than they are in south-west London. We can be sophisticated and call it dynamic or honestly admit that it is unstable; the managerial – and thus, philosophical – merry-go-round at Chelsea has left the club with barely any identity of its own.
A team doesn’t always have a strong identity even with long-term managers, like Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson. The Scotsman built four teams in his 27 years at Old Trafford, that is to say, four different cores, because football faces a few asset management problems.
A good team today will not stay a good team five years down the line, firstly because the club’s assets – its players – age fast, and secondly because clubs operate in highly competitive markets. Any revolutionary innovations – three-at-the-back, for example – are quickly mimicked or combated.
Every club must thus regularly go through a squad cycle.
First, there is an experimenting period while building a squad, when the turnover of players is high. A lot of new players are brought in and only the ones that “fit” stay on. In this phase, results are volatile.
Successive such seasons typically see gradually improving results, so fewer new players need to be acquired. This is typically followed by a consolidation period, when the club holds onto a larger proportion of their players, and buys only the necessary additions. In common parley, this is when a team “peaks”.
After this, the core disintegrates as the squad ages or key players move, or simply as the driving philosophy of the club becomes ineffective. Other clubs adapt to any tactics that might have lent a competitive edge, and it is time to return to the chalkboard and come up with a new style and new players. If a club has the financial capacity, it invests heavily in rebuilding in order to stay competitive. Thus, the club returns to phase 1. Fans and pundits call this a “transition”.
Chelsea last had a consolidated team in 2012; the trusty core that won them their first Champions League. Ever since, they have been transitioning.
What do we mean by a core? A loose definition would include players who have been at the club for at least a couple of seasons, enough to prove their quality, become regular starters, and be perceived as leaders by newcomers.
A core develops as a significant proportion of the regularly featuring players (those with 20+ starts in a season) stay at the club for multiple seasons.
Both Liverpool and Manchester City, for example, are currently hitting peak. Given Liverpool’s transfers so far, in 20 19-20, 10 of their players will have been regular starters at Anfield for two or more seasons. The corresponding figure for Manchester City is 12.
The Citizens went through a transition in the previous three seasons, albeit a successful and quick one, when the “core”, on average, was only 43% of the regular players. A shopping spree – if you can afford it – always helps; the trial-and-error can be conducted faster. Remember the 2017 summer where Pep Guardiola splashed £221m on reinforcements? They retained 95% (or 13) of the title-winning ‘regulars’ to win another title last season. The core had been built.
Most managers undo the previous squad in their first or their second season, often revising 50-60% of the starting players. Both Klopp and Guardiola, by their second full season, retained less than 6 core players from the previous regime.
This probably is the root cause behind Chelsea’s prolonged transition. Mourinho kept only 50% of the core he inherited. Conte, in his second season at Chelsea, completely revamped the team of his Portuguese predecessor, with only 40% of the team comprising of players from two seasons ago. Sarri produced the same effect in his season. It is difficult for the same core to last under different managers.
What does this mean on the pitch? Chelsea have been through Mourinho’s 4-2-3-1, Conte’s 3-4-3, and Sarri’s 4-3-3, each one a drastic overhaul from the previous style. Sarri had no use for Marcos Alonso or Moses, Conte’s wingbacks. He brought in Jorginho to displace N’Golo Kante, the pivotal defensive player under Conte’s setup, into attack.
Transitioning – and a low percentage of old players in the starting XI – does not always spell disaster; both Conte and Mourinho left with Premier League medals. It just implies more unpredictability – like winning the title in one season and finishing 10th the next.
Chelsea – and other clubs at this level – don’t just target the occasional trophy. There is a clear desire to build a lasting legacy, to cement their place as a global brand.
However, a dynamic system with high turnover of managers (and thus players) has no space for squad evolution; its successes will be brief and sparse. For a team to complete their transition, at least one system or philosophy must persist for a few years. A team needs to find its shape, fill its gaps, and find its leaders.
But no one has the patience to witness a transition anymore. We’re here for competitive sport, not ballet.
So, every August, Chelsea fans emerge from their caves with lit candles and hopeful eyes. “Maybe this time it will be different”, they whisper to themselves, suppressing the adamant, knowing voice in their heads which says, “It’s just last season all over again.”
It’s a business, after all.
And businesses don’t care what the voice in the heads of fans say. Calls have to be taken based on what makes the most sense and what projects a successful future. So, let’s look at this summer break through a more rational, academic lens – what does it mean for the season ahead?
A brief recap: we last left Chelsea at 3rd place in the League after a blistering run of 6 points from 5 games to end the season; an achievement only because their competitors for top 4 performed worse. After their Europa League win, Eden Hazard, who was directly involved in 34% of all their goals last season, signed for Real Madrid. One-season-old manager, Maurizio Sarri, left for Juventus shortly after.
In 2019-20, the Blues attempt to fight two demons at once – the managerial pattern that they have been repeating for seasons on end, bringing in one established name after the other, and recovering from the loss of a player billed as the best in the League.
Before we understand why this is what Chelsea needed at this point, let’s recap some theory:
Statistics 101: The errors from a good model must be random, not systematic.
Say, I want to lose weight. I devise a plan to eat salad for dinner and skip breakfast. It works fine while I stick to it, but I regain all the weight in the one week I’m on vacation. I start over, but after several iterations, it is evident that the plan is not turning me into a supermodel for the long term.
The errors from all the diet attempts have a pattern. Why? Because I’ve missed out a key factor in sustainable weight loss – exercise. Every time I return to the diet, I make this same mistake again, swinging between starving and gaining weight.
Under normal circumstances, the current situation would push Chelsea to sign up a manager with a philosophy to build a team that would challenge for glory in England and Europe. They would hand him a chequebook, and spend lavishly on players that the management think will suit the club.
But the Chelsea wallet sits locked in FIFA’s drawer. The transfer ban forces Chelsea to hold on to whatever players they have, and promote some from a lively academy that has, of late, only written farewell letters to its most promising stars.
Chelsea have been forced to break a pattern. This time, they have brought in their all-time top goal scorer, Frank Lampard, back as manager, after a single season of managing experience with Derby County in the second division.
With due respect to Derby, Chelsea play a game of higher standards and stakes.
The Blues last played in the second division 30 seasons ago, before the investment from Russia and even before the Premier League. Derby’s most recent Premier League (2007-08) saw them get relegated in March, with a single win and a grand total of 11 points from 38 games.
Chelsea (£443.4m) earn more than 14 times the revenue of The Rams (£29.6m), . This figure includes earnings from sales, sponsorships, tickets, broadcasting and results – all of which depend on what happens on the pitch.
By not qualifying for the Champions League in 2018-19, for example, Chelsea dropped £42m in broadcasting income. There is no scope to falter against the newly emerged top 6, that regularly spends north of £380m on transfers every season.
Once you take off the rose-tinted glasses of a nostalgic Chelsea fan, this doesn’t seem like a wise decision. Why don’t they get someone who has managed a top flight club, won a few trophies and has an ideology, like they always do?
Perhaps, because it’s what they always do.
Lampard brings with him the former Chelsea U-18 head coach, Jody Morris, as Assistant Head Coach, and Eddie Newton as Assistant Coach, a position he had previously held in their Champions League-winning season. Lampard’s former teammate and a goalkeeping legend at Stamford Bridge, Petr Cech, also returns as technical advisor. The four have appeared in over 1500 games for Chelsea collectively.
At a time when there is no shopping to be done, and self-sufficiency is the need of the hour, it only makes sense to bring in a management that knows the Chelsea Academy (that has seen unprecedented success of late, winning the FA Youth Cup in all of the past five seasons). The players and staff are inexperienced and may not provide much hope, but they are the only hope.
Thus, we witness some excellent risk management from the footballing Gods. If no one’s got your back, you must do your best to save yourself. Let’s pause now for an economics refresher.
Economics 101: A big risk for insurance companies is that of a moral hazard.
Say, you buy an insurance policy for your car. Having this policy makes you more reckless. When you don’t remember whether you locked the car or not, you do remember that you have insurance against theft – and the company will reimburse you fully in the worst-case scenario. Is it worth going to the garage and double checking? You’re sure it’ll be fine.
The risks are higher just because you have a safety net.
As Eden Hazard was bailing the team out of tricky situations (without his goals, Chelsea would have won 12 points less, without his assists and implicit contribution, even more) there was no need to return to the academy for assistance. Generations of good players have come, won major trophies at the U-18 and U-23 levels, and been loaned and subsequently sold to other clubs.
The Academy has received enough England call-ups in the last year-and-a-half to almost field its own side of internationals. These great performances hardly translate to opportunities in the team; the Academy collectively registered 16 starts in the Premier League in 2018/19. By the time one manager is convinced of the calibre of one player, another comes along to push him back onto the bench, and then into oblivion.
The winds seem to have changed in the last four weeks. Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Mason Mount signed new 5-year contracts, and Callum Hudson-Odoi is on the brink of the same. Tammy Abraham and Andreas Christensen have emerged as viable playing options through pre-season. The young players have been a regular subject in Frank Lampard’s press conferences.
Chelsea have gaps to fill, and they’ve dug deep into their own pockets to find what has always been there – the seeds of a new core.
“If you want something you have never had, you must be willing to do something you have never done.”Thomas Jefferson
It can be hard to believe that things will improve, especially when conventional wisdom says that a transfer ban and an unproven management will only drag the club downhill. An average pre-season will be followed by a drop to the mid-table. Experience suggests that the way to “make it” is to sign an expensive manager and even more expensive players. While that is impossible for Chelsea this season, the rest of the top 6 should be getting together for a party about now, popping open champagne bottles to celebrate one less threat.
But we, here at Stamford Bridge, believe in this footballing fairy tale; this is why we watch football.
In what seems like a blessing in disguise, Chelsea have been compelled to give their existing players stronger roles. Instead of turning to the chequebook and hiring an established Italian mastermind, they have chosen to bring in less glamorous names that embody the identity of the club. Surely, enough has changed for us to cross the transition border.
So, will Chelsea beat Manchester United come their curtain raiser tonight? Of course. The revolution has only just begun. This season will be different.