?As we approach the end of June, the thrills of the World Cup have placed domestic football firmly on the back burner for the time being. With all eyes on Russia, club sides have been able to quietly go about their summer business.
While most teams have made progress in some form towards preparing for the new season, one of English football’s biggest clubs has been conspicuous in their inactivity since the end of the season, raising serious questions over what exactly is going on behind the scenes.
?Chelsea were expected to part company with Antonio Conte shortly after the conclusion of the 2017/18 campaign, with tensions continuing to build between the manager and the club’s hierarchy while the players also demanded a change in leadership.
The Blues’ FA Cup final victory over ?Manchester United seemed set to be Conte’s swansong as the Italian was ushered out following a turbulent two years at Stamford Bridge.
Yet as July rapidly approaches and the transfer window officially opens, Conte remains in his post. The uncertainty over the manager’s future has sent the club into a kind of stasis, with no players coming in or going out while the manager’s position at the club remains unclear.
With Napoli manager Maurizio Sarri reportedly lined up to replace Conte and the futures of Thibaut Courtois, Eden Hazard, Alvaro Morata and other big names still yet to be decided, fans have only one question: What is happening at Chelsea?
The search for the answer takes us to the very top of the club’s hierarchy, beginning and ending with the club’s billionaire owner, Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich.
After taking control of Chelsea in 2003, Abramovich set about creating a footballing dynasty to rival any other in the world, flooding the club with money and revolutionising their facilities in order to build a side which could challenge for trophies both domestically and internationally.
The effects were immediate. After finishing in second place behind Arsenal in 2003/04, Chelsea won back-to-back Premier League titles in 2005 and 2006 under the management of an up-and-coming young Portuguese coach named Jose Mourinho.
Players such as Claude Makelele, Didier Drogba and Arjen Robben were signed for sizeable sums in order to bolster Chelsea’s squad and the results were breathtaking – Chelsea’s tally of 95 points in 2004/05 set a new top-flight record that was only beaten at last by Manchester City last season.
But even though Chelsea have continued to prosper and win trophies – the club’s silverware haul in the Abramovich era includes five Premier League titles, five FA cups, the 2012 Champions League and the 2013 Europa League – the cracks in the club’s lavish exterior have been visible for years, suggesting that all is not well beneath the surface.
For one thing, there is the club’s extreme turnover of managerial staff. Under Abramovich, Chelsea have gone through 12 managers in 15 years excluding caretakers, meaning that the club hires a new manager once every 1.25 years on average.
Even managers who have seemingly met Abramovich’s meticulously high standards, such as Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti and now Conte, have a habit of finding themselves forced out months after bringing a major trophy home to Stamford Bridge. Should Conte depart this summer as is so widely expected, he will be the second consecutive Chelsea manager to leave the club in the first season after winning the Premier League title.
Then there is the matter of Abramovich’s activities away from the football pitch. The 51-year-old recently withdrew an application to extend his UK visa after facing delays due to escalating tensions between Russia and the UK.
Abramovich is a known associate of Russian president Vladimir Putin, having been one of a group of Russian oligarchs who made their fortunes in oil following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s.
With the legitimacy of Abramovich’s business enterprises being spurious to say the least and new visa rules requiring applicants to prove the origins of their wealth, Chelsea’s owner now finds himself unable to enter the country in which much of his business is currently based.
While Abramovich is most likely capable of running the club from abroad, this new level of scrutiny under which he and his associates are being placed could force him to reconsider his options.
Plans to build a new 60,000 seater stadium for the club have already been put on hold following Abramovich’s visa issues, leaving Chelsea fans concerned that their club’s sugar daddy might be growing tired of his favourite toy.
Regardless of what happens next for Chelsea, this latest chapter in the Abramovich era represents a noteworthy loss of control by one of the defining figures of modern British football. What was once a fine-tuned machine has hit a major stumbling block, one that it has had a difficult time trying to overcome.
What matters now is that Chelsea steady the ship, and fast.
That means solving their managerial conundrum, whether that means sacking Conte or not, and resolving the futures of their key players. If the club do not do this soon, they could easily spend another season outside the top four.
The responsibility lies with Abramovich to put an end to all the uncertainty and make a decision: stick or twist.
If he chooses to stick, he needs to lay down the law and get Chelsea fully operational again before the new season begins. Only he has the power to restore Chelsea to the full might of his early days as owner; it is down to him to, quite literally, put his money where his mouth is.