The scenes at the Hawthorns were fresh and yet familiar for Chelsea Football Club. Smiling faces abound after Michy Batshuayi’s 82nd-minute goal handed the Blues another league championship, champagne-soaked celebrations that will last long into the summer.
Seems like everyone was as comfortable as could be.
So that means it’s almost time to get uncomfortable again, right?
That’s been the pendulum for Chelsea under owner Roman Abramovich, swinging wildly in the direction of turmoil nearly as often as triumph.
The Russian oligarch completed his takeover of Chelsea in 2003 for £140 million, and he has ballooned the valuation tenfold in the ensuing decade and a half. His detractors will argue he has led the front lines of soccer’s callous plunge into cash and pragmatism, hiding club debt in his holding company (which serves as a parent to Chelsea) and committing only to impermanence.
But say this for Chelsea under Abramovich: As England’s other major clubs lay adrift in malaise, whether due to the departure of a longtime manager or the continued decay under one, whether from the quest to establish consistent glory or the quest to recapture it, the Blues continue to get results. A lot of them.
The trophy case at Stamford Bridge has gone from barren to bursting at the locks. Chelsea has won the Premier League five times since the takeover, compared to a solitary top-flight title in its previous 98 years of existence. There have also been scads of FA Cups and League Cups, as well as the ultimate glory, a Champions League title in 2012 under circumstances of relative disarray.
Andre Villas-Boas started that season as Chelsea manager but barely made it into March, sacked after a run of form saw the club dip to fifth place in the table and only take six points from six matches.
Caretaker manager Roberto Di Matteo couldn’t bring the Blues back into the top four, but he did engineer a major upset of powerhouse Barcelona in the Champions League semifinals. Then he beat Bayern Munich in their own stadium to clinch European glory for Chelsea, a first for the club and for any club in London.
Di Matteo was named full-time manager as a reward. Five months later? Out of a job.
Abramovich gives his hires space to do their job, but he’s never hesitated to make power moves when he deems situations unacceptable, which is exactly how the club’s press release termed the run of results under Di Matteo to start the 2012-13 season.
Other “unacceptable” situations included the end of Jose Mourinho’s first tenure with the club, replete with direct friction between the Portuguese and Abramovich. His replacement, Avram Grant, led Chelsea to its first Champions League final … and was sacked himself three days later.
The new direction lasted all of half a season, when Luiz Felipe Scolari was let go for results dubbed “deteriorating” and all sorts of other value-tepid words. Two more managers got the axe before the the arrival of Villas-Boas in June 2011.
For as predictable, though, as the club had become in its unpredictability, the money was largely spent smartly and the trophies have poured in. Chelsea has been constantly ascending or descending this century, never stationary, and the refusal to accept failure has paid off.
It also catapulted Chelsea on the trajectory to capturing the Premier League this season. Mourinho’s second stint fulfilled its promise with a league title in spring of 2015, and then the pricey players in the dressing room grew tired of his grating ethos and staged a mutiny that led to his sacking that December. Sitting 16th in the table and embroiled in an honest-to-goodness relegation fight, Chelsea needed a major overhaul in attitude.
Hiring Antonio Conte last summer was met with some skepticism but proved to be a masterstroke. His ability to adapt his formations and mold tactics and light a fire under the team separated Chelsea from the pack this season.
Perhaps it shouldn’t have been so hard to see this coming. Conte is a grinder whose irascibility and football intellect compare favorably to Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti, who also won the league with Chelsea in 2010.
It’s proven to be that edge, that utter lack of sentimentality, which drives Chelsea at all levels. Think it’s easy managing an irritable star like Eden Hazard? Or a veteran like John Terry who’s in the tabloids as much as he’s on the pitch? Or the godlike troll persona of Diego Costa?
It’s not. Neither is being crowned champions of England. But outside of Manchester United, nobody’s done it more than Chelsea in the Premier League era.
Call it a standard of excellence if you’re idealistically inclined. More authentically, it is a cold expectation to win or face the consequences. Whether you like the approach or not, Chelsea is comfortable in its own skin of volatility, which starts with the mad titan running the show.
Soccer’s kings of chaos are back on top. Time for things to get messy again.
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