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Thursday, 1 September 2011

Oligarchs and Question Marks

"Well this sucks"

Somewhere in the Mediterranean last night, a Russian billionaire strode on to the deck of his $1bn super-yacht clad only in a towel and angrily shook his fist at the moon. ‘Marquee!’, he shouted at the inky sky. ‘Fucking MARQUEEEEEEE!’.

Meanwhile, back in the UK, a wiry Portuguese with more tattoos than a man could realistically ever need walked into the largest marquee ever erected in West London; nay, the world, and felt pretty fucking small. ‘Don’t worry’, a weary Spanish voice assured him from somewhere underneath an enormous price tag. ‘It’s probably for the best’.

In 2011, Manchester City have spent £106m, or as we like to refer to it, ‘fuckloads’. Third-place favourites Chelsea, however, have now spent £172m in this calendar year and no one appears to have batted an eyelid. Well here comes Magic Spongers, eyelids fluttering like a desperate drunk student in a bar at 2 in the morning.

Now this isn’t about the fact that Fernando Torres is still trapped inside the universe’s largest marquee, but rather that the lack of invigoration throughout this Chelsea squad so far this season will surely have already alarmed the King’s Road’s resident oligarch. But the problem for Roman Abramovich is that while he impatiently demands the evolution of a rigid side still (yes, STILL) dominated by the ghost of Jose Mourinho, he is disregarding one of the great laws of our universe, namely that proper evolution takes bloody ages. Or if not bloody ages, at least more than a season or two.

This year has seen one of Chelsea’s biggest ever outlays on players and you can bet your life that Andre Villas-Boas has 18 months maximum to make it work. So far, the signs don’t look too good. The Portuguese continues to grapple with a problem baffling scientists for some nine months now – the Torres-Drogba conundrum – and has farmed his one source of genuine pace, Gael Kakuta, out on loan for another season. Any innovation in formation appears to have been eschewed in favour of the same old 4-3-3 and a reliance on messrs Cole and Bosingwa to provide any sort of width.

The ghost of Mourinho still hangs over this side. Chelsea are buying players who are just 'midfielders' or 'forwards', but not wingers, or players with the brio to operate between the lines. They have no definable playmaker or number 10, false or otherwise, certainly not if it’s safe to say – and we think it probably is – that Frank Lampard is not the player he once was.

Equally, the still very much alive ghost of Abramovich hangs over his managers as it has ever done. But how can the incumbent possibly flourish in an environment where you are sacked if you don’t win the league? Indeed, rather implausibly, returning a double doesn’t appear to be enough to keep your job.

Is Abramovich bankrolling perpetual failure then? If his managers feel they've no time to change things then it’s easily explicable why they persist. Few have tried to revamp Mourinho’s 4-3-3 and while Villas-Boas employed a similar system in a couple of different incarnations at Porto, at least there he had a forward in great form in Hulk to lead the line, not a goal-shy Fernando Torres or a disinterested Didier Drogba.

The signing of Torres might come to embody the whole Abramovich era. A striker who isn’t scoring cannot be persisted with forever and nor, it seems in the Russian’s mind, can a manager with such an embarrassment of riches but no Champions League trophy. Patience is not part of the owner’s unforgiving methods. If Villas-Boas is perceived to have failed though and is shown the door, where do Chelsea go next? Would anyone want to work somewhere they are constantly bombarded with apples, but only given an onion cookery book to work from, albeit the most expensive cookery book known to man?

It seems the Russian can’t decide what kind of club he wants Chelsea to be. Huge outlays to kickstart the Mourinho era were pared back as the credit crunch wiped out a percentage of his fortune, at which point it seems managers were instructed to work with what they had, for the most part. After that didn’t really work out (although it did really, if like most of us you consider a domestic league and cup double to be a success), the marquee went back up and in came Torres, who doubtless should have been followed by Modric, but has also been joined by a host of middle-value signings that all, as they say, add up. Like most clubs, the forthcoming financial restrictions should give rise to an interesting exercise in budgeting at Stamford Bridge.

Whereas Manchester United have started the season in sparkling form with home-grown and British talent catching the eye, one gets the impression that Abramovich would perpetually favour a Galacticos model, as if somehow the success is purer if your side contains Kaka and Ronaldo rather than Young and Cleverley. How the Russian must fume when surveying Manchester City’s squad, marquee-laden as it is.

Chelsea has long appeared an extension of Abramovich's ego, vanity project that it is – it’s basically his Kubla Khan and he will always favour a Shevchenko over a Sturridge. One imagines his favourite side ever was the Zidane/Figo Galacticos side – a dangerous blueprint, as we know.

At the very least though, players of the considerable ilk of Meireles and Mata should provide Chelsea with a creative spark, if Villas-Boas feels daring enough to use both, which he should. That said, Yossi Benayoun’s limited playing time when fit provides a cautionary footnote – there isn’t always room for one floating role in the Chelsea midfield, let alone two.

Changing Chelsea’s style of football is no easy task as recent history emphasises, but it can be argued that with his recent acquisitions, Villas-Boas at least has the potential to do so at his disposal. Whether he’s granted enough time to take the risk is another matter entirely.


  1. What a terrific headline. Top, err, marks.

    Good piece too.

  2. Willie Miller's 'tache23 September 2011 at 16:09

    Sneaky use of the apples and onions too. Good to see it back!