With the aroma of Thanksgiving turkey still in the air, supporters of Manchester United and Arsenal have a lot to be thankful for. Even though neither team has hit top gear over the last month, both find themselves within touching distance of the top spot in the Premier League, thanks to some uncharacteristic stumbles from defending champions Chelsea.
The dip in form has left a lot of Chelsea supporters scratching their heads. Sunderland delivered not only one of the most comprehensive home defeats in Chelsea’s recent history, but also one of the biggest upsets the Premier League has ever seen. Just as a reminder, this is a team that started the season with an aggregate score of 14-nil in their first three league matches. In Chelsea's 3-nil loss to Sunderland two weeks ago, they didn’t look a shade like the side that shot out of the gates in August. So what happened? What changed from August to now?
Things began to really sour after the club surprisingly sacked assistant manager Ray Wilkins. By all accounts a popular figure among players and staff, Wilkins spent six years with Chelsea as a player in the 1970’s, and eventually rejoined the club as an assistant under then-manager Luis Felipe Scolari. He has been Carlo Ancelotti’s right-hand man since the Italian made the move to London in 2009, and the Blues boss gave Wilkins high praise in his recent autobiography, saying without him the club “couldn’t have won a thing” last season.
And yet, Wilkins was axed with little warning and little explanation. A small blurb on Chelsea’s website read: “Chelsea Football Club chief executive Ron Gourlay has announced today that the board has decided not to renew Ray Wilkins’ contract. This will take effect immediately. Gourlay said: ‘On behalf of everyone at the club I would like to thank Ray for everything he has done for Chelsea Football Club. We all wish him well for the future.’ ”
Rumors are still running amok, and none are flattering on the Blues’ end. Some say Wilkins was sacked after bust-ups with owner Roman Abramovich and chief executive Ron Gourlay over team tactics and coaching methods. Some say he was informed of the club’s decision at half-time of a reserve match at Chelsea’s training ground. Some even say a legal case is pending over the matter. While the real story is still ambiguous, the results on the pitch aren‘t – Chelsea lost to Sunderland and Birmingham immediately following Wilkins’ dismissal.
But there is more to Chelsea’s recent blips than Ray Wilkins. Another major question still to address revolves around the fitness of captain John Terry. Reports initially stated a recovery period of “months” for the nerve injury in his leg, but this week Ancelotti said the captain’s situation was “day-to-day”, and that Terry could even be fit for the weekend match against Newcastle. Terry’s recovery schedule may still be completely unclear, but like the aftermath of Wilkins’ departure, the results since his absence aren’t – the last league match that Chelsea won is also the last match in which John Terry played, a 1-nil victory over Fulham on November 10th.
There’s no way to tell which issue had a bigger effect on the team, but the timing was undoubtedly terrible, and they mark two potentially big problems for the club. Firstly, with Wilkins ushered out of the club and Ancelotti’s future in question (erroneously or not), are there issues with the management hierarchy at Chelsea? Former manager Jose Mourinho famously quarreled with Roman Abramovich over transfers and playing style despite the most successful period in the club’s history. If the rumors behind Wilkins’ sacking turn out to be true, is this another case of the higher ups meddling with team management?
Secondly, if John Terry’s injury problems are as bad as initially feared, are Chelsea deep enough defensively to recover? Letting Ricardo Carvalho move to Real Madrid may come back to bite the team harder than they initially feared, especially after the Portuguese has proven in Spain that he is still a defensive force. Outside of Terry in the center of defense, Chelsea have Alex, who has been struggling with injuries, Branislav Ivanovic, who has yet to replicate his fine form of last season, 19-year-old Jeffrey Bruma, who has barely been given a sniff of the first team by Ancelotti, and perhaps the most telling of all, Paulo Ferriera, a fullback by nature who has been drafted into the center back position due to injuries to Alex and Terry. That’s the same Paulo Ferriera who has barely made the Chelsea first team in his natural position over the last two seasons – 11 league starts last season, 1 the season before, yet already 7 in this campaign.
Of course, this could be an overreaction, as the football world tends to have from time to time constantly. Last season everyone thought Chelsea’s wheels were coming off after they were comprehensively dumped out of the Champions League by eventual champions Inter Milan, and yet they went on to do the league and FA Cup double. Even now, they’re top of the table thanks to a superior goal difference to Manchester United. So let’s not get ahead of ourselves. But questions remain about the strength of the squad and the club’s management hierarchy, and they have been asked at the most demanding stretch of the English football season. With matches against Tottenham, Manchester United, and Arsenal quickly approaching, those questions need to be answered sooner rather than later.