Carlo Angstalotti after the Sunderland defeat: A course correction or something deeper?
After the stunning loss to Sunderland the current form is to portray Chelsea as a club that has come unglued. A host of injuries to first teamers, the departure of key players, an out of the blue dismissal of a veteran assistant, and a flat affect have all been blamed for the drop off in performance. Carlo Ancelotti for the first time had to go to his youth brigade to salvage some pride against Steve Bruce’s side. A call to alarm? Not really.
Against Liverpool, the Blues came across a very good Fernando Torres who scored twice and then the Reds shut them down with Lucas having the match of his life. The result was touted as evidence of a Reds resurgence that would then carry them to the top four. After this weekend’s loss to Stoke, it is back to ‘Woy’ for Hodgson’s critics. One should not pay too much attention to a single result in a season that spans 38 matches.
There is talk that the eyebrow raising dismissal of a long time hand like Ray Wilkins coupled with these two defeats further imbalanced the club. Lets put this to rest. Roman Abramovich’s bankrolling the club gives him the authority to hire and fire on whimsy. He installed Avram Grant out of left field leaving the club bitterly divided into a pro and anti Mourinho camp. Two years ago, Guus Hiddink was flown in to save the season at the expense of Big Phil Scolari. Even Carlo Ancelotti would be foolish to surmise that he does not live week to week. By now the core of Chelsea veterans are used to these ruthless expositions of power as are the fans. There was nary a show of support for Wilkins at the Bridge on Sunday. If Arsenal let go of Pat Rice the repercussions would be of more seismic proportions.
Michael Ballack and Ricardo Carvalho are arguably the only players whose departure could have had a tangible effect on the weekend result. Deco, Juliano Belletti, and Joe Cole never really established themselves at the club. Attributing this so called slump to them is to give too much credit that they never had in the first place.
More credible is the contention that Chelsea were undone by a sense of complacency which if one thinks of their home record of not conceding a goal in 916 minutes is not an entirely unwarranted state of mind. It’s actually an incredible record and not since 2002 did they lose so comprehensively at home. The cloak of invincibility seems to have enveloped Florent Malouda, usually the most reliable barometer of intensity. It was quite unusual to see the fleet footed former Lyon winger wander aimlessly without setting up his trademark crosses for Didier Drogba. One of the reasons why the striker was forced deeper into weak long range efforts. In fact, Craig Gordon was never seriously tested at any time. Highly unusual for a club known for its ruthless goalscoring efficiency.
Chelsea were also hurt by absentees, most by Michael Essien. The absence of the mercurial Essien who revels in the long slog at both ends meant that the midfield was left to John Obi Mikel whose admirable physicality is inadequate compensation for tunnel vision when it comes to desperate creation.
Discussing a premature Chelsea demise is to give short shrift to a stellar Sunderland display. Sunderland’s goals have come through Darren Bent and Asamoah Gyan. Against Chelsea, Bent’s absence was hardly felt as Gyan continued his form but the Black Cats found additional goalscorers. Nedum Onohua’s slaloming run is deservedly the highlight of the week but the man of the match was Danny Welbeck. The Man Utd loan was limited to just one by Petr Cech otherwise this could well have been a one man wrecking crew. Sunderland’s cast of heroes included Kieran Richardson whose presence on the right channel kept the lid on Ashley Cole. His pressure led to Welbeck’s well deserved goal.
Sunderland’s endeavour was characterized by patience and maturity. Lee Cattermole, Bolo Zenden, and Jordan Henderson kept midfield control recycling the ball for their 18 goal attempts as they stretched Chelsea’s defense. They were Arsenal without the recent scrappy incarnation. The expected onslaught never came as the midfield battle was ceded to the Black Cats.
The Blues blindingly fast start had to hit a course correction sometime but they would rather take it now than late in the season. With John Terry and Alex out till the new year they might look vulnerable at the back but there should be doubt that a competent manager like Ancelotti will guard against complacency and rejigger a squad that can manufacture wins till they get back their starters. But the long term prospects of the club in light of the FIFA fair play rules look less clear as does the relatively anaemic turnover from the youth ranks. That is the subject of another article.