Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Chelsea find themselves; win Champions League

Chelsea's win over Bayern Munich during Saturday's Champions League final is a triumph that only three months ago was utterly inconceivable.  The club was desperately short of form, many/most/all players had decided unilaterally that Andre Villas-Boas had no business coaching them and the team played with purposelessness rivalling beheaded chickens.

This is certainly due in part to Villas-Boas' methods and the uneasy conflict they created when combined with his remit: beautiful football, better results and a younger, growing team.  That the Portuguese manager attempted a root-and-branch reform in the back rooms of Cobham within months of arriving was certainly ambitious; with hindsight, it appears unfortunate and a little misguided

Chelsea's progress towards a high defensive line and a team composed of rapiers rather than broadswords created a definite schism in the playing staff.  Those players with bucketfuls of personality and credibility - Terry, Drogba, Cole, Cech and Lampard - were still key to this iteration of the team, both on- and off-field; yet the club's future identity was shifted instantly and without consult to a shot-happy Daniel Sturridge, the pitiable Fernando Torres and other youngsters.

This situation wasn't helped by player purchases made by club executives rather than by the man in charge of dictating the squad's sense of collective self, the manager.  Torres, Romelu Lukaku, Kevin de Bruyne, Thibault Courtois, Johnny Kills and Gary Cahill were all young, highly sought-after and supposedly ├╝bertalented superstars of the future.  Unfortunately they only exacerbated the personality crisis within the club: were Chelsea a young, fluid, passing team or a team of blunt but supereffective veterans?

Although game tactics were (probably) clear, the entire squad - by dint of confusing statements, puzzling purchases, genuinely odd team selections and an unfamiliar, unsuited gameplan - were a team without an overwhelming sense of purpose or identity.
Courtesy: Telegraph.co.uk
In sport, identity is important.  Not only does it provide a tactical map, but it also generates a sense of certainty in both management and playing staff which helps inherently on a psychological level.   Perhaps one of it's ultimate consequences is with player acquisition.  Rather than plugging in stars from other teams who may not fit the team's  psyche or tactics (a la Liverpool), they can bring in players suited best for their club (say, Blackpool or the latter-day Newcastle United).  A standout example can be taken from this year's promoted teams: after having played the same style in three divisions, Swansea City and Norwich City have succeeded by employing cheap, second- and third-tier players who fit their club's on- and off-field culture.

Since Roberto Di Matteo assumed control, he has created a sense of unity and identity lacking during Villas-Boas' reign.  Even though they finished one position lower in the league than they were when AVB was fired, this too helped: Chelsea became cup-focused and able to coalesce behind an "underdog" persona.  While this worked well against bogey-team Barcelona, it was taken to the nth degree in Munich: talisman captain suspended, best defender suspended, two centre-backs recovering from injury, backups of questionable quality, key midfielder suspended ...  the pervading instability and queries over the quality of replacement (who'd have though Jose Boswinga and Gary Cahill would start the final only two months ago?) only contributed to a "we'll show 'em" mentality.

Chelsea absorbed tremendous amounts of pressure and then punished both Barca and Bayern when their limited opportunities came.  With some notable exceptions, the Blues have struggled since Mourinho's departure to find a common identity.  Saturday's result came as they found themselves after years of looking.

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