Words can barely describe the magnitude of Chelsea’s fall from grace this season. Catastrophic, shambolic, outrageous are a few that come close. It has been a crazy season at Stamford Bridge to say the very least. The Blues’ were favourites to retain their crown this season, after winning it in style the previous campaign. But no one could have prepared Chelsea and their fans for what was about to happen over the course of this season.
In the 2014/15 season, Chelsea with their brand of fast, powerful football, almost sealed the title in the first half of the season itself. Matic was widely regarded as the best defensive midfielder in the league. Fabregas’ return to England was glorious – setting up goals for Costa and Hazard and reminding the world of what he’s capable of after three mixed seasons at Barcelona. Costa’s debut season was a successful one, even though it was marred by injuries and controversies in between. He managed to rack up 20 goals in his first season, scoring in his first and last game of the season for the Blues. But Hazard was the standout performer of the season, carrying Chelsea on his shoulders during Chelsea’s mid season slump, winning the league for them at Crystal Palace and being named the Player Of The Year by both his club and the PFA. The comparisons to Messi and Ronaldo began and the Belgian was expected to build on his season and challenge for the Ballon d’Or in the near future. Meanwhile, captain John Terry rolled back the years and was back to his very best. He played every single one of Chelsea’s Premier League games, in the process of leading them to their 4th Premier League title in 11 years. It was Mourinho’s time to shine and it seemed as if a new era of success was at hand.
Cut to December 2015, Chelsea were languishing at 14th place on the table, with only 20 points after 19 games. Mourinho was sacked on the 17th of December after a loss to eventual champions Leicester City and Guus Hiddink was called in to take over as interim manager. It was an unprecedented fall from grace for the champions, one which no analyst, pundit or manager could have predicted. Matic was practically invisible, Fabregas was a shadow of his former self, Hazard showed up overweight for pre-season and didn’t show up at all for the first half of the campaign. It seemed as if Costa’s great first season was a one-off, with the striker failing to find his scoring touch. Chelsea’s defensive unit, which was the foundation of their previous title winning campaign, was in shambles. It seemed as if age had suddenly caught up with Ivanovic, and Gary Cahill, who was once touted to take over after John Terry, failed to impress. Terry and Cesar Azpilicueta, as much as they tried, didn’t have the best of seasons. Fans and neutrals alike were left shocked as they saw the champions of England wither and crumble, and left fighting for their lives.
The Carneiro Case
It started off with a draw against Swansea. A 2-2 draw against the Welsh side which saw Tibaut Courtois sent off for the Champions and the beginning of the end for club doctor, Eva Carneiro. The doctor and her assistant ran up the pitch to assist Eden Hazard who seemed to have been injured, but Mourinho didn’t take too kindly to this. He thought that the Belgian was merely tired and didn’t require any assistance.
Hazard was brought off, reducing Chelsea to 9 men for a brief period of time when Chelsea were not in possession of the ball. Mourinho was outraged and was reported to have been screaming profanities in the direction of the lady doctor. The manager would later go on to label his medical staff as ‘naive’. Carneiro would be sacked by the club, and she would go on to file a case against Mourinho for constructive dismissal. The unnecessary publicity caused by these events was huge. It led to tensions between the staff and Mourinho within the dressing room. This can be seen as the start of a series of events that would ultimately lead to Mourinho losing most of the dressing room and the ”Special One’s” love affair with Chelsea finally coming to an end.
One would imagine that after 2 years and a Premier League title, Jose Mourinho would have most of the dressing room on his side. Mourinho is famed for being able to get the best out of his players and is widely regarded as one of the best man-managers around. Case in point, Eden Hazard. The Portuguese brought the very best out of the Belgian, who to his own credit, was making progressive strides every season as a Chelsea player. But their title winning campaign was the best season of Eden Hazard’s career. Only a year ago, there were rumours of Hazard and Mourinho not seeing eye to eye, with the manager expecting more dedication on the training pitch out of a person with Hazard’s potential. Hazard’s habit of leaving the training pitch the earliest didn’t please Mourinho. But all of that was put aside after Hazard stepped up his game that season.
The ‘siege mentality’ that Mourinho tried to create this term completely backfired. Last season it was all about the ‘campaign’ the officials had against the Chelsea team. Creating this type of mentality in the dressing room gives the team an ‘us against the world’ impression. This in turn helps the team put a more united and passionate front and it even helps in getting results. Sadly, it didn’t go the same way for Mourinho. The players felt burdened and were low on confidence. His public bashing of the players was too much for some of them to handle. Each player responds differently to criticism. The players seemed as if they didn’t even want to play for the club anymore. Rumours were circulating of a player who had stated that he would rather lose than win for Mourinho. Fans targeted players like Fabrgeas and Costa and blamed them. Mourinho was left alone and eventually, let go.
Mourinho’s mid-season sacking saw the fans turn on the players who they thought were the reason behind his removal from office. In their first match after his sacking, against Sunderland, Fabregas, Costa, Oscar and Hazard were all targeted and booed every time they touched the ball. Chants of ”Jose Mourinho” and “where were you when we were shite?!” rang around the Bridge every time they scored a goal. The reason given by club director Michael Emenalo for Mourinho’s sacking was “palpable discord”. It was a sad end to what could have been a great story.
To put it quite simply, Eden Hazard didn’t show up in the first half of the season. In fact he didn’t show up until the very end of the season, in their last 4 games. This was Hazard’s worst season ever. He has never before endured a goal drought like the one this season – a 30 match goal-less run. He finally ended it with a goal against MK Dons, scoring his 50th Chelsea goal in the process. Chelsea’s star player going missing for most of the season had a lot to do with their disastrous campaign. Hazard’s father insisted that Chelsea were over-playing him even through injuries, but to say that the cause of the drop in form was only due to injuries didn’t seem to convince the fans.
The Belgian didn’t make it easy for himself either. As if his performances weren’t bad enough, he admitted during an interview that turning down a move to PSG would be hard. These comments came only a few days before a crucial Champions League semi-final tie against the Parisians. He also came under fire for swapping shirts with Angel Di Maria during half time. The fans accused him of being one of the players who contributed to Mourinho’s sacking and in the first game against Sunderland, post-Mourinho’s sacking, he was one of the players targeted by the fans in the stadium. The winger later admitted that he sent the Portuguese a text message apologising for his horrid performances this season.
Hazard did end the season on a high note though. On his return to fitness, he was brought back into the match day squad and he registered two goals against AFC Bournemouth on the 23rd of April. 10 days later, he came on as a substitute at 0-2 down and put in a performance to remember as he scored the equalising goal against Tottenham which sealed the title for Leicester City at the expense of their cross town rivals. This would put him back in the good books of most Chelsea fans, but he still has a lot to make up for in the coming season under Antonio Conte.
Hiddink’s Second Coming
Needing a short-term fix, the Chelsea management went to Guus Hiddink. A close friend of Roman Abramovich and a much-loved figure at the Bridge, Hiddink was brought about to try and turn Chelsea’s fortunes around (as much as he could). It was more of a ‘salvage whatever you can from the wreckage’ kind of job. Hiddink’s first spell at Chelsea in 2009 came under similar circumstances, when Luis Felipe Scolari was sacked in February 2009 and Hiddink was brought in to help turn Chelsea’s fortunes around. That first spell ended will, with Chelsea reaching the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions league, only to be unfairly beaten by Barcelona and the Dutchman also led the Blues’ to an FA Cup triumph.
Fans were angrier about Mourinho’s sacking than they were happy to see Hiddink come back. He helped Chelsea to the longest unbeaten run in the league, but even he could only manage more draws than wins. Although he brought back some confidence into the team, it wasn’t enough. However, they did seem freer, as if they were slowly getting back onto their feat. Losses to PSG and Everton ensured that Chelsea had nothing to play for come April. Hiddink found the team at 14th place in the league. He finished the season at 10th spot. The job at hand for him this time was much greater than the last, with the first priority being to get Chelsea out of the relegation battle. He did manage to get the players to put in more effort. However unnecessary draws and losses to the likes of Stoke City and Sunderland could have been avoided. He didn’t manage to get the best out of the players and they were often accused of ‘sleep-walking’ to the end of the season. The seasoned Dutchman wasn’t afraid to reiterate that he had saved Chelsea from relegation, even though that was the very least expected out of him. Though he couldn’t end the season with a trophy or a European spot, there were positives to take out his second stint with the Blues.
Chelsea’s Young Hope
Hiddink’s greatest contribution to Chelsea this season was to incorporate young players into the Chelsea setup. Chelsea’s troubles with integrating their youth academy stars into the first team have been well-documented over the course of past seasons. Abramovich has pumped millions into Chelsea’s academy but is yet to see any desired results. Chelsea’s young lions have dominated the youth ranks in England for a few years now and this season defended their UEFA Youth League crown.
This season, Chelsea reached a point where they had nothing to play for. They were out of the UEFA Champions League and FA Cup. They surely weren’t going to get relegated and they had no chance of making the Europa League. Hiddink decided to make the best of the situation and give more opportunities to the youth. Kennedy, Bertrand Traore and Ruben Loftus-Cheek all got a look into the squad. Tammy Abraham, Kasey Palmer and Fikayo Tomori were handed their first team debuts as well. Seeing the young guns come through the ranks and play for the team is something that would’ve given the Chelsea fans something to smile about in an otherwise nightmarish season.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Kennedy even managed to get some goals under their belt this season, much to the delight of the fans. The former, who is the shining light of the Chelsea academy and their brightest prospect, pushed for a first team spot this season with some fine performances. Chelsea even offered him a new deal to keep him at the club for the long run. Kennedy was picked by Jose Mourinho and the Portuguese decided to keep him in the squad rather than send him out on loan after being impressed by the young Brazilian in Chelsea’s pre-season. Showing his versatility, he was utilised as a left winger, central attacking midfielder and also a left-back under Hiddink in place of Baba Rahman.
The young Bertrand Traore, who decided to stay on at Chelsea and push for a first team spot, was rewarded for his patience and effort, finding himself above Pato and Falcao in the pecking order. The Burkina Faso international was handpicked by Jose Mourinho for the Chelsea squad. The 20 year old managed to score 4 goals for the club from mostly substitute appearances under Hiddink’s reign.
Chelsea’s true progress regarding their youth will only be known if they choose to use them in games of consequence, rather than when there’s nothing to play for in the rest of the season. Chelsea’s youth stars are some of the best of the world and they have the best academy team in Europe for the 2015/16 season. Only time will tell, whether Hiddink’s investment in youth can go on to be his greatest contribution for the club.
The Heart That Wouldn’t Stop Beating: Willian
Willian was Chelsea’s best player this season by a distance. No player in a Chelsea uniform has performed as well as he has this past season. This was a season where Chelsea needed leaders and key players to step up. In a season where Hazard chose to not show up until the very end and Costa was missing for half the season, it was Willian who stepped up to the plate. It is scary to imagine where the Blues’ would have ended up without the tireless efforts and the goals of the Brazilian this season.
It wasn’t hard to see why he was a Mourinho favourite. There’s probably not a manager in the world that wouldn’t want to have a player with his attitude. He seemed to be the only one willing to try and get a result out of each game. One rarely sees £30million wingers running back to defend and then back up to attack like he does. Willian racked up 11 goals and 6 assists in all competitions this season, which is a vast improvement from his previous two seasons at the club. The Brazilian helped his team past the Champions League group stages almost on his own. In his past two seasons, the tireless winger wasn’t as widely regarded as Hazard and Oscar, but this is the season where he has won the hearts of many if not all Chelsea fans.
He was single-handedly dragging his team through matches, fighting off the mediocrity that had engulfed his teammates and was the heart that refused to stop beating in a near-dead Chelsea side. But there is only so much that one man can do and only so many gorgeous free-kicks that one can score. Willian’s performances this season embodied hope, passion, fearlessness and love — everything a football fan wants to see from his or her players. Fans’ expectations from Willian would have increased for next season and even though it has taken some time, the 27 year old has finally established himself as a Stamford Bridge cult hero.