One cannot put into words how I am feeling right now just hours after the glorious culmination of Chelsea’s 2011-12 season in the triumph of the Champions League Final. The game itself that crowned Chelsea European champions was a microcosm of their season. The opening stages saw a Chelsea team that was knocked back on its heels and forced to fight an uphill battle against a seemingly stronger squad and the hometown advantage of Munich. Slowly but surely though Chelsea kept itself in the game while fending off chance after chance from Bayern. The fight and heart of the team seemed to die in one tragic event as Thomas Mueller put Bayern ahead 1-0 in the 81st minute. The Blues did not quit, as easy as it could have been, and arguably the greatest goal in Chelsea history scored off a corner by Drogba in the 88th minute sent the game into extra time. Another setback threatened to doom Chelsea in extra time as a Drogba foul on Franck Ribery in the box led to an Arjen Robben penalty attempt, but Petr Cech continued his terrific form and saved it. This match was destined for PK’s and it did not disappoint. Chelsea seemingly began the shootout with its back up against the wall as Mata’s opening attempt was saved, but the perseverance of this club would not be blocked as they did not miss another attempt and Cech saved the last two. It only became fitting that Drogba sealed the deal for the Blues and capped arguably the greatest season in Chelsea history. But how did the Blues end up in Munich?
The team entered this season with a combination of hope and confusion. Almost a carbon copy of the 2nd place finishing team from last season and the Double (FA/EPL) winning team from 2 seasons ago arrived in camp, but to another new boss. Italian Carlo Ancelotti had been removed as manager just one season after leading Chelsea to the domestic double in rather surprising and confusing fashion. In his place was the wonder kid from Portugal, the former FC Porto skipper Andre Villas-Boas who had just come off leading his team to an undefeated season that saw them win three trophies. The key to AVB’s hiring, and also Ancelotti’s firing, was that he was supposed to bring in a more aesthetic way of football to the club that owner Roman Abromavich seemed to eternally search for. Now I was initially on board with the hiring of the 33 year old, though still skeptical of the ousting of Ancelotti.
The season started rather slowly as Chelsea seemed to be stuck in the starting blocks, engaging in a scoreless draw with Stoke and needing late winners in successive matches against Norwich City and West Brom. The team never fully seemed to hit its stride and click like it had in past seasons. The team was struggling all around: no width on the offensive end that led to predictable forays into the final third, a backline that seemed to have no unity, and a manager that was struggling to adapt his free-flowing offense to the physical British game. This is not to say that the team was not on track for success; they were still actively battling for the Premiership top 4, in Champions League competition, and advancing in the FA Cup.
Then the wheels came off. AVB never seemed to adapt his style to the Premier League, instead trying to force his style on the league akin to a square peg in circle hole metaphor. There seemed to be a litany of excuses: the game was too physical, the refs were against them, AVB didn’t have the right players for his system. A clash of cultures began around Stamford Bridge, with the Wonder Kid butting heads with the Old Guard. The new style favored by Roman vs. the Old Guard who were the legends of the bridge. There was not going to be a mutually successive ending. The first signs of trouble came in the form of training ground verbal squabbles, where apparently AVB dismissed and berated each player of the club and even banned Nicolas Anelka and Alex from first team football. The rumblings continued when members of the Old Guard like Didier Drogba and specifically Frank Lampard were given lesser roles within the starting lineup and began to voice their doubts and concerns, a movement that almost became a full blown mutiny.
The club still had world class talent, but no unity. The players did not adapt to the style of play and the manager did not adapt to the players. Chelsea had a team of physical, tough-minded veterans who had succeeded in Ancelotti’s “diamond formation” tactics but were not the right fit for AVB’s free-flowing, quick-moving, high-lined style. The team was not competing with the more powerful clubs in the league, struggled to beat or even draw with middle table teams, and only barely beat lower table squads. The team lost any top 4 matchup it had early on in the season, to the likes of Man United, Arsenal, Liverpool, and Man City. Worse enough they were only skating by in the Champions League group stages.
AVB seemed to demand a spending spree in the Winter transfer window to mold the club more in his image, but instead only received 5 signings. He received the midfield maestro he had been searching for in Valencia’s Juan Mata, Centre-back help with Bolton’s Gary Cahill, midfield help from fellow Portuguese international and Liverpool cast out Raul Meireles, and two young Belgian products in Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku.
But nothing seemed to stabilize the squad and following a 2-1 defeat to Man City there was a disturbing string of results: Three straight draws with Wigan, Tottenham, and Fulham. Wins at Aston Villa and Wolves. Then a draw with Swansea, a 3-3 draw with Man United that saw Chelsea up 3-0 at one point, a 2-0 loss to Everton, and an embarrassing 3-1 defeat at Napoli in UCL play. Two weeks later AVB was sacked following a 1-0 defeat to West Brom and Chelsea seemed to be a lost cause on the season.
The reins were now handed to former Chelsea great Robert Di Matteo, as “caretaker manager”. It seems Chelsea would play out the season, disappointing as it was, and blow up the team in the summer while starting over with yet another new manager. Instead Di Matteo mesmerized the masses by performing a “righting of the ship” that will only go down as legendary. He calmed down the inflamed emotions of the Old Guard and disposed of AVB’s 4-3-3 formation and high line. Instead he instituted a 4-2-3-1 that saw Chelsea focus on its defensive roots and trying to control the midfield. The team did not seem to play spectacularly in the Premiership, still not able to climb fully into the top 4 race, but they performed admirably in the Cups. The Blues proved that “parking the bus” is still a useful tactic and used it to create three of the most memorable games in Champions League history.
There are now many questions concerning this team heading into the offseason; questions that may cut the celebrating short. The biggest issue that needs to be addressed is who will be in charge? Di Matteo is still “the caretaker” and even though he performed the closest thing to a miracle possible, the job is still not secure. The big fish is lurking in the form of Pep Guardiola, a tantalizing pick for Roman since he has been trying to find someone to mimic Barcelona’s style for years. What better way than to hire the man who instituted the system? The next issue is that of the roster. Does the Old Guard have one more great season in them or is it time to infuse the youth movement? Didier Drogba has apparently already ushered himself out and it will be interesting to see who is brought in over the summer as possible heir apparents to players or even replacements.
Those are questions that can be answered in due time, but for now each Chelsea fan needs to enjoy the moment. This is a time of extreme enjoyment and excitement around Stamford Bridge and a time to be thankful for the wonderful season we enjoyed watching and the tremendous effort put forth by our heroes on the pitch. It may not have been easy along the way, but as a fan I would not have had it any other way. The rough and unclear path just made it that much more enjoyable when Didier slammed the penalty home and relieved the stress/tension of Blues fans around the world.