Chelsea used to make an easy dinner out of trips to places like Norwich. They would travel, feast, fill themselves up and return to London with 3 points in the bag. What was once an easy task has now become a stressful endeavour. Chelsea travel to grounds like Carrow Road hoping for 3 points rather than expecting them. On Saturday their hopes were not realised, yet again, and the team departed from Norwich back to London with their tails between their heads.
This is not the Chelsea of the Jose Mourinho heyday, the brief stay of Guus Hiddink or the first season of Carlo Ancelotti. This is more like the Chelsea of Luis Felipe Scolari, Avram Grant (Champions League excursions excluded) and the second part of Carlo Ancelotti’s reign. The team plays in the same way, that is a direct style with minimal wing play, but it lacks the defensive solidity that made a clean sheet likely and the mental fortitude that made winning a necessity at almost any cost. Once that groove has gone, once the verve has lost its way, it is difficult to get it back. It takes months of continued success to get back even a little of the mental strength that was before taken for granted. It is one of the greatest achievements of Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign at Manchester United. The Manchester United manager has not always had the best players in the English Premiership, in fact in the past couple of seasons it could be argued he didn’t even have the second or third best group of players, but what he does instill in his players is a remarkable audacity. The type that says ‘we must win, we have to win, we will win.’ Of course this audacity can often manifest as naivety and it is impossible to win every match. Mental strength does not mean a team can avoid defeat. What it does achieve, however, is a conviction. The idea takes hold within the squad that when the team has lost it is not because they are inferior, it was merely because they didn’t turn up. A team with the ‘verve’ believes that they are always superior and going to win and if they don’t then it is only because they didn’t apply themself. Simply put, a team believes that everything is in it’s own destiny, under it’s own control. Chelsea’s players no longer believe that. The players try, the manager tries, but for all their efforts they still can’t create a consistent winning run. They play well in patches and awful in patches. They score in abundance one week and concede plenty the next. The team no longer has faith in it’s own abilities. They play and when they win they know it was fortunate and that when they lose it was because it was deserved. Chelsea have lost their verve and without it, just like Arsenal and Liverpool, every game is an uphill struggle. There is no mental advantage over the opponents. Instead the supposed superiority works as a burden. The team and players are held back by the expectation that they themselves know to be unwarranted.
Chelsea are a long way from the title. Chelsea don’t even have any ‘verve’.