Chelsea can begin to close the gap by not ripping it all up and starting again


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The margin of victory in the Carabao Cup final was only one goal, but the sporting gap it implied between Liverpool and Chelsea was nothing short of a chasm.

Chelsea contrived to lose to a Liverpool team featuring several teenagers not long removed from their Kirkby academy. Supporters of the west London club could have been forgiven for wishing Jurgen Klopp had been able to call upon Mohamed Salah, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Dominik Szoboszlai at Wembley — even if it resulted in a scoreline more akin to the 4-1 battering suffered at Anfield less than a month ago.

It was a sufficient humiliation to prompt fresh introspection about the state of the investment project led by Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital. But when the dust settles, the realisation should dawn that the gap to Liverpool is not particularly relevant; Klopp is leaving at the end of the season, along with all of his staff and sporting director Jorg Schmadtke. Whatever follows this compelling final chapter of a glorious era at Anfield will look very different, and the anointed successors will have the daunting task of maintaining the same standards.

Part of Boehly and Clearlake’s rebuild strategy has been to assemble a young, talented Chelsea squad capable of growing into serious contenders just as Klopp and Pep Guardiola leave the Premier League. One of those two titanic figures is in his final months at Liverpool but the other shows no immediate desire to depart Manchester City, or even a hint of edging beyond the peak of his coaching powers.

Todd Boehly and Behdad Eghbali (Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

City always were, are and — barring an independent regulatory commission ex machina — will likely remain the true benchmark for Premier League and Champions League excellence. Chelsea summoned enough in a 1-1 draw at the Etihad Stadium earlier this month to suggest next season’s gap between the two clubs should be less than nine places and 24 points in the table, but there is little cause to expect the shrinkage to be large enough to herald the bloom of Boehly and Clearlake’s painful rebuild — without even accounting for Arsenal’s ascension.

So what now? In the aftermath of such a dispiriting loss, the most emotionally satisfying response is to call for sweeping change: to significantly re-work a squad that has underwhelmed and to sack Mauricio Pochettino, who compounded the loss by sparking a storm of fury and ridicule with his public admission that penalties became an appealing proposition for his tired players during a fatally tentative extra-time showing at Wembley.

Plenty are doing exactly that. Yet the problem with this line of thought is that Chelsea have lived with sweeping change for two years. This current reality is a direct consequence of Boehly and Clearlake choosing to go scorched earth on almost everything associated with the Abramovich era at Stamford Bridge and Cobham.

Chelsea fielded just one player at Wembley on Sunday who featured in either of the domestic cup final defeats against Liverpool in 2022: 113th-minute substitute Trevoh Chalobah. The speed and scale of the squad overhaul has been dizzying, and it is mirrored by the turnover in personnel in virtually every department of the club. Some early Boehly-Clearlake hires have already left. Others have barely finished their probationary periods and some, like Sam Jewell at Brighton, are still on gardening leave with their previous employers.

Boehly and Clearlake went well beyond the inevitable and necessary changes demanded of any post-Abramovich ownership, and consequently two years into their reign Chelsea are an entirely different club, recognisable by not much more than their name, stadium and training ground. It also means, infuriating though it may be for many supporters to be reminded, that we are still in the early throes of the £1billion investment project they have embarked upon.

If this season ends in more mid-table mediocrity there will be a temptation to shake things up again, just as Chelsea felt no compunction about dismantling a bloated squad that finished the 2022-23 season 12th in the Premier League. But this group of players — most of whom are young and tied to ultra-long contracts — has been together for less than a year, and a raft of injuries have slowed the process of building collective cohesion.

Even in the worst cases, the ability and potential that made these young footballers attractive transfer targets in the first place have not vanished. Selling low on the signings who have disappointed is no more viable a strategy for sustainable success than selling high on the few who have managed to increase their value as Chelsea players.

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(Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

City and Liverpool’s consistent excellence through continuity is a compelling guide. Arsenal are also regarded at Stamford Bridge as a highly relevant model, having allowed a talented group of young players to grow together with a progressive coach, supplemented by smart signings. Chelsea need surgical rather than scattergun recruitment to address specific holes in their squad, and in this regard, the club’s limited wiggle room within the Premier League’s profit and sustainability rules (PSR) could prove a blessing in disguise.

Pochettino’s future is a separate matter. Conditions at Chelsea are sub-optimal for a head coach but it is reasonable to question whether he is capable of being a transformative leader on par with Guardiola or Klopp. He topped out at Tottenham with a series of impressive teams who fell just short of winning major silverware. The nature of the Carabao Cup final defeat also constituted a new nadir for his standing with the match-going supporters, and history tells us that such a loss of popular confidence is rarely recoverable.

But if Pochettino ends up being the summer change that is settled upon, any discussion of replacements must be underpinned by an awareness of where Chelsea are and how they would look to prospective hires: a club in search of a third project coach in less than three years, mired in Premier League irrelevance with a fanbase still pining for a recent golden era. How appealing would that job really be in a summer when Liverpool and Bayern Munich, to name just two other European giants in better health, will have coaching vacancies?

While they wait for the day when Guardiola follows Klopp out of the Premier League, the most important task for co-sporting directors Paul Winstanley and Laurence Stewart might be to identify one of the defining coaches of the next generation and begin pitching Chelsea as a place for them to build rather than derail a promising career.

That level of patience is a difficult posture to maintain and brings no guarantee of success, but Boehly and Clearlake have already seen what the more chaotic alternative looks like.

(Top photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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