With a handful of games left til the end of the season, it’s still considered a two-horse race, with us being a surprise runner. I say a surprise because from the minute Grant took the reins from Jose, it’s felt at times, we’re like the horse that runs around without its jockey – enough potential there to win but missing the obligatory ‘master’ to steer it in the right direction. There’s no disputing that right now we’re no further behind the league leaders than we were a year ago and again have secured a place in the CL semi final, but somehow, it feels as if we’ve done that in spite of ourselves. So, I guess the question is would we have been in a better or worse position if TSO was still in the saddle?
One explanation put forward for our failure to retain the title last season was lack of support for the manager. Constant speculation in the press and the Chelsea hotseat have gone hand in hand for as long as I can remember and Jose’s success had not granted him immunity it seemed. Daily stories listing potential successors went unchallenged by the SB hierarchy, giving journalists carte blanche to go into orgasmic overdrive – even his dog wasn’t spared the intrusion. That’s not to say Mourinho was without his allies, far from it. Everyone from his right hand man, to players and supporters, vowed a very public allegiance to TSO. In contrast, his successor has both Clarke and Ten Cate with him on the bench, neither of whom appear keen to even talk to him, much less support him. Indeed, Clarke was rumoured to take some persuasion to stay following Jose’s departure, a decision which now would appear to have been a temporary one. He has looked a particularly unhappy shadow of his former self this season and he’s not alone. While clearly prepared to play themselves into the ground a year ago in order to save their manager’s job, some might suggest the reverse is now true for the players. Ok, to say they are deliberately playing badly might be taking it too far (although going on recent performances this explanation would come as a huge relief to many), but the absence of respect is evident, from the lack of response on the pitch to headlined quotes of imminent departures. Add to that a weekly barrage of abuse from the diehards, dismissive press and a non-committal board, and Grant doesn’t seem to have fared particularly well on the support front either.
Players who only a year ago appeared to hang on their boss’ every word, now pointedly ignore the manager, seeking touchline advice from Clarke whilst turning to the skipper for team talks. That famous team spirit fostered under the previous regime seems to be draining away as quickly as the love inside the Anfield boardroom. Drogba, who’d previously made enemies only with the elusive, but ever present sniper in the crowd, is rumoured to round on fellow players with a regularity Gallas himself would be proud of. Michael Ballack on the receiving end more recently, with Maka and Cech among his previous victims. No wonder Cech’s reluctant to part with his headgear given the current ethos, where the captain wrestling with Tom Jone’s look-alikes is all part of a day’s training. Still, the sparring practice all comes in handy when dealing with match officials, eh John? How exactly did Cech end up with stitches again? Hmmmm.
So, at the risk of going all Arsenal-esque here, that brings us nicely on to the subject of injuries. After two very healthy title winning seasons, last year saw us cursed with a constant string of afflictions, providing another piece of evidence for Jose’s defence. Yet the pile of sick notes left on TSO’s desk wouldn’t appear to have got any smaller now that Grant’s the one with his feet under the table. A glance at the physio’s stats shows injuries to 17 players during the course of the season. Didier Drogba, our main source of goals last season, missing more league games than he’s played; Carvalho and JT leaving our defence exposed on 18 occasions each, likewise Maka; Cech has been missing between the sticks on 12 occasions so far, with that set to rise as a result of his latest impairment and Cudicini as ever, has gone out in sympathy with him; the once ever present Lampard has missed 11 games with fellow midfielder Essien equalling that absence; and our midfield has been weakened still further with the much improved Ballack playing only 14 times. Now that’s not to say we’re the only club affected, United have had their fair share, from a captain who seemed to have taken a mini-retirement to the eternal sick note otherwise known as Louis Saha. Add to that having Vidic out sporadically and the effect of Rooney’s absences, and they’d have cause for complaint themselves. Certainly, there’s been times Tevez has been their only fit front man – although compare that with Pizarro or Anelka and suddenly it doesn’t seem such a hardship after all. And of course, I’m sure I’ve heard the odd subtle hint from Arsene’s Playgroup, who, rumour has it have been lucky to put together a decent 5-aside team this season, nevermind a first 11.
In terms of available personnel then, nothing much seems to have changed. Injuries continue to dictate, although the services of Belletti and Alex have been beneficial, if not exactly astounding in that respect. Then of course there’s the addition of the less than prolific Anelka, and the as-yet elusive Ivanovic. Whereas, having considered their own injury-induced battles from the previous season, albeit a title winning one, the opposition strengthened the quality of their squad considerably with the likes of Hargreaves, Nani, Anderson and Tevez. Were we ever really going to compete with resources like that?
And talking of the squad, what of the mass exodus the press have warned of all season? There’s every chance once Mourinho returns to management, wherever that may be, he’ll cast his eye over the remnants of his former relationship, hoping for the odd souvenir. Unsurprisingly, Drogba could head the list, having voiced his desire to either leave/stay at Chelsea with the embarrassing frequency of a dementing pensioner throughout the course of the season. And Lampard, who’s contract negotiations seem to have stretched from one millennium to another, yet another possibility providing he can tear himself away from the latest concubine. But, let’s not kid ourselves these potential and very probable departures are linked to the events of the summer. Drogba, after all, has talked of leaving from as far back as his first season with us when he failed to feel the love inside SB and Lampard’s contract has been pushed under his nose for the past two seasons, only to remain as it is now – unsigned.
On the face of it then, the current regime, rather than deliver the much talked about ‘beautiful’ football has delivered something far, far uglier. Grant’s decisions, particularly in the big games, have been a little confusing to say the least and we’ve lost that determined, unattractive yet efficient consistency we’d come to defend as a matter of course. And yet, the fact remains, in terms of position at least, we find ourselves mirroring the achievements of Jose’s last term (give or take the odd domestic cup or two obviously).
So, the question remains, how much worse has Grant really done and has Jose’s departure really affected us that much?