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The one's that got away

Are the crack appearing in Chelsea's long standing transfer policy?

As history shows, it is never an easy job to defend the Premier League title. Chelsea know this all too well.

The club claimed two successive titles in Mourinho's first spell, and alongside Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United side, they are the only clubs to successfully retain a Premier league title. However, it seems that in the ‘new era’ of the mega-bucks Premier League defending the crown is becoming a mammoth task, with no club managing it in the last decade. No matter how successful a title winning squad may seem, dare to resist change and you will be blown aside by up to five hungry competitors hot on your heels.

To be fair to Chelsea, no amount of preparation could have equipped them for Pep Guardiola’s remarkable Manchester City side. This is no normal season. However, despite the successes of City, the cracks are beginning to appear in the complex structure at the Bridge, with a very frustrated Antonio Conte at the forefront of it.

Chelsea remain in a respectable position. The Blues currently sit at third in the table, having coming through a gruelling festive schedule unbeaten. Conte’s side appear to be breathing down the necks of Mourinho’s United in second place, and many of the UK’s top pundits fancy them as favourites for the ‘best of the rest’ tag. They face Barcelona in the last sixteen of the Champions League and are in the semi-finals of the league cup. Yet, things are not as rosy behind the scenes at Chelsea. Fans are becoming disillusioned with the clubs firm transfer policy, and Conte, himself, is increasingly becoming more of a misfit at Cobham as he continues in a war of words with the board.

Although the club have brought home three league titles and a European crown in the last decade, loyal Chelsea fans are beginning to become concerned with the clubs transfer policy, which has seen the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Mohammed Salah and Romelu Lukaku slip through the net, amongst others.

It is a well-known fact that Chelsea aim to poach the best young talent from around the globe with the hope of selling on for profit. Their youth teams have become some of the most dominant sides in the country, with both national and European successes. However, the lack of opportunities for such players has been bemoaned for many years now. Their loan system has been lucrative at best, controversial at worst, with the club currently having a gargantuan 38 players out on loan - many of them established international players. The man responsible for the model is former technical director Michael Emenalo, who resigned from his role in November. Emenalo was a difficult figure for the Chelsea fans to take to, and his exit was sparked a popular reaction amongst Blues fans despite all his successes.

Emenalo was, in theory, in charge of all transfers and recruitment at Chelsea and despite popular opinion, he served as an ally of Antonio Conte throughout the well-documented tensions during the summer. Emenalo’s exit was no victory for Conte, as he acted as a buffer between the first team and the board where clear divisions exist. Conte struggles to see eye to eye with Roman Abramovich’s sidekick Marina Granovskaia, who deals with club operations on a day to day business. Emenalo, who has now taken up a director role at AS Monaco, oversaw seven managers in as many years in his time at Chelsea, however he almost became a pantomime villain for Chelsea fans in the latter months of his tenure, as supporters deem him responsible for the sales of talented youngsters like Nathan Ake and Nathaniel Chalobah, as well as the loan exit of the promising Ruben Loftus-Cheek.

The lack of desire to afford opportunities to some of the clubs most promising young players has consistently caused issues in the last decade, regardless of manager. This raises the concern that the board are unwilling to play ball with the long term development of academy players, despite their ongoing successes at respective youth levels. This in addition to the reluctance to keep players who are now terrorising their own defences, have left fans exasperated at the lack of change.

Kevin De Bruyne and Mohammed Salah are both in the running for this seasons player of the year, leaving Blues fans with the thought of ‘what could have been?’. Former striker and summer target Romelu Lukaku spurned a chance of re-joining the club in favour of challengers Manchester United, which made the decision to sell anchor-man Nemanja Matic to their rivals all the more bizarre. Then you look at Juan Cuardado, Ryan Bertrand, Juan Mata and Nathan Ake as players who would likely feature prominently in Conte’s current system, if they were only given the chance when on the books.

It raises the question, is the current structure sustainable? The silverware sitting at Stamford Bridge would suggest so. However, you get the feeling that many Chelsea fans are missing out when they see the national team flooded with young stars from their rivals such as Tottenham and Manchester United. The bond created between fans and a local player is one that has been adored in football for many years, and Chelsea fans will continue to miss out on this if there is not a change of attitude at the very top.

Local reports state that recently sacked Hull City boss Leonord Slutsky is lined up as Emenalo’s replacement, a close friend of Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich. It is unclear if this will be a step forward or back for Chelsea’s complex structure at this moment in time. Conte continues to suggest he is detached from transfer activity at the club, whilst also bemoaning ‘I rarely get the players I want’. The Italian has had over £300m worth of reinforcements arrive at the Bridge since his arrival in summer 2016, and Ross Barkley will be next in the door later this week. With Conte admitting he is not in charge of recruitment just this week, and his trusted friend Emenalo no longer in place to communicate to the board, things could get messy at Chelsea.

Looking at the recent history of the job, it is hard to suggest that Conte will stay in his role for years to come. The enigmatic character stole the hearts of the Premier League throughout last season, yet his public disputes with popular figures such as Diego Costa and David Luiz will only damage his case going forward. If the latter does follow his countryman out the door, and although Chelsea never struggle to replace such players, how long can such a reciprocal process continue?

Let’s not get this wrong, Chelsea are and will remain a phenomenal team at the top end of the British and European game. However, as many clubs turn to long term vision, can the same be said for the Blues?

By Lewis McKenzie