Rebuilding the Blues
How quickly soccer changes. A few months ago, the 2011-12 season was considered to be one of transition for Chelsea -- a lack of evolution over the past five years meant they now needed a revolution. The current crop wasn't good enough to succeed at the highest level, yet there was no "next generation" ready to step into their shoes.
Yet now, Chelsea is the European champion. Soccer is often beyond rational explanation, and the Blues' triumph in Munich is a fine example. Arguably the weakest Chelsea side since Roman Abramovich bought the club in 2003 has achieved the greatest moment in the club's history, largely thanks to the least-decorated coach Abramovich has appointed.
But what of the future? Abramovich clearly wants to build a dynasty at Chelsea and hopes this will be the first Champions League victory of many. Yet despite this triumph, there is still the need to evolve. Every great side needs rejuvenating -- to prevent becoming predictable, to add new sources of competition for places, to simply become a better side.
And that's the strange thing about this Chelsea squad: despite having largely persisted with the Jose Mourinho generation of players, there's suddenly an exciting new crop of players ready to form Chelsea's next core. Across the side, there have been major improvements over the past two seasons: in goal, Thibaut Courtois has spent the season out on loan at Atletico Madrid, winning the Europa League at the end of an excellent individual campaign. At the back, Gary Cahill and David Luiz were both superb on Saturday night, while Ryan Bertrand appears to be Ashley Cole's long-term successor at left back, his natural position.
In midfield, Oriol Romeu has fallen out of favor but retains great promise, Ramires has been Chelsea's best player in the run-in, and Josh McEachran should get more playing time next season after a mixed spell on loan at Swansea. Juan Mata was the Blues' Player of the Season and has been brought into a central/attacking midfield role sooner than expected.
Going forward, Romelu Lukaku didn't feature much this season but is regarded as one of the best teenagers in the world, while Daniel Sturridge had a fine start to the campaign. Furthermore, Kevin De Bruyne and Marko Marin, two exciting young wingers, will arrive in the summer. Fernando Torres' future is unclear.
In summary, you could conceivably construct a good Chelsea side entirely from younger, vibrant players who weren't at the club two summers ago -- with one exception, the lack of a right back. (Strangely, that's the position Chelsea has never looked comfortable in since the days of Mourinho. Paolo Ferreira is a fine servant but hasn't been a regular for years, Jose Bosingwa has endured long injury layoffs, and Branislav Ivanovic prefers to play at center back.)
Furthermore, Chelsea just won the FA Youth Cup after a 4-1 aggregate victory over Blackburn Rovers in the final, showing that 2011-12 was excellent in building for the future at Stamford Bridge. The European Cup almost seems like an added bonus.
Chelsea's next permanent boss -- it may or may not be Roberto Di Matteo -- is now faced with a tricky task. How much evolution is needed within the first team? Chelsea's European Cup win is most comparable to Liverpool's triumph in 2005, after which Rafael Benitez was rightly ruthless in restructuring his squad. Milan Baros, Igor Biscan and Vladimir Smicer were sold while the likes of Jerzy Dudek and Djimi Traore remained at the club but were no longer first-teamers.
Moving a side from one generation to the next is a difficult job, and there are basically three ways Chelsea's next manager can usher in the new guard.
The first is to sell a couple of big-name players; doing so would mark a symbolic shift away from the previous regime and give others the opportunity to become leaders. Ironically, two excellent examples of this come from two former Chelsea coaches. Jose Mourinho's first act at Real Madrid in 2009 was to inform Raul and Guti they were no longer needed at the club; they'd been there for too long and were too influential in the dressing room. At the same time, Andre Villas-Boas was happy to get rid of the two big names in the Porto dressing room, Bruno Alves and Raul Meireles, after Porto had finished only third in the Portuguese league the previous season. Both decisions were broadly successful.
The second option is to have a revolution in one section of the side and keep another unit intact. Arsene Wenger did this in his first couple of years at Arsenal -- while the famous back five of David Seaman, Lee Dixon, Nigel Winterburn, Tony Adams and Martin Keown remained, things were tweaked further upfield. Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit offered a new-look midfield duo. Mark Overmars arrived on the left wing, while Ian Wright lasted only one complete season under Wenger before giving way to Nicolas Anelka. The foundations of the side remained, but the attacking department became more exciting.
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The third option is to refuse to believe that a revolution is needed. Ideally, you shouldn't need sweeping changes: A club with good long-term direction should change small components each year. Sir Alex Ferguson has always been a master of that, changing things almost every summer, and Pep Guardiola has also done this equally well at Barcelona.
Of course, this is the easiest and most likely option. Cahill, Luiz, Mata and Bertrand started on Saturday, hinting that the changes have already begun. Yet only Mata will be assured of his place in the side at the start of next season, and there's a danger that Chelsea's next-generation players will become frustrated with their time on the bench, thus threatening the club with stagnation.
Chelsea should cherish this success but appreciate the need to progress. "This is just the beginning," said a beaming Frank Lampard after the victory on Saturday night. For many of Chelsea's current side, that is true -- and Lampard is a good elder statesman to have around the club -- but departures from Stamford Bridge this summer are inevitable, whoever the new coach is.
Michael Cox is a freelance writer for ESPN.com. He runs zonalmarking.net.
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