Sunday 15 March ~
If Liverpool are back in the title race after their thrashing of Man Utd yesterday then so are Chelsea. A home win against Man City this afternoon would take them into joint second place, four points off the top. If both United's pursuers remain in contention it will be because they have managed to blot out the chaos being whipped up by their employers. Liverpool's co-owners continue to be at loggerheads while their minions scour the Middle East for a buyer. Meanwhile Chelsea's owner has apparently decreed that the club must jettison most of its older players and buy for the future. At least that's what he thinks this week.
Roman Abramovich was nowhere to be seen for much of Phil Scolari's tenure at Chelsea. But now that Guus Hiddink is charge he's popping up at every game, giving the TV cameras every opportunity to capture that habitual look of amused bafflement, which some would say even shades into gormlessness from time to time. Feigning dimness is probably a useful tactic in certain lines of business and no one would take Roman Abramovich for a fool for the manner in which he set about assembling a multi-billion-dollar fortune. Yet he persists in running his fiefdom at Stamford Bridge in a thoroughly bizarre manner.
When Abramovich set out to buy success for Chelsea, the aim seemed to be to have two players for every position in the team and therefore a much stronger first team squad than any other club could afford. A few years on, Chelsea have an experienced first team but less strength in depth than the rest of the “big four”. As buying established names hasn't worked out too well lately, notably in the cases of Deco and Michael Ballack, that approach is set to be jettisoned in favour of recruiting a batch of young players.
The fact that Abramovich sacked half his European scouting network at the onset of the recession suggested that he had little interest, or faith, in what was being done at the academy. Yet this week it has emerged that the head of scouting, Frank Arnesen, is line for a promotion to director of football. Arnesen's spell in charge of youth recruitment has been strikingly unsuccessful, however. Michael Mancienne is the only player to have come through the ranks in recent times with John Obi Mikel, the Nigerian who began in Norway, a rare example of a young signing from overseas who has established himself in the first team squad. And he appeared to have signed for Man Utd before Chelsea, so he was hardly a clever discovery.
Giving primacy to youth over experience still looks an attempt at an instant fix. To emulate Man Utd in constructing a squad gradually you need a manager to be in place for several seasons – Liverpool are getting closer to Man Utd because Rafa Benitez has been given time. This would also mean accepting that there will be years when the team is not in close contention for the title. The current Chelsea side might still push United close this season. But with Guus Hiddink insisting that he won't stick around beyond the end of May, Chelsea will soon be appointing their sixth manager in seven seasons. That ratio of appointments will continue for as long as the owner isn't prepared to think ahead – but maybe that's too boring a prospect for a man who can buy everything except common sense.