You’re already familiar with the idea of a club in crisis. Every club is either in it or approaching it. The sport’s attention economy, the churn of the Premier League’s news cycle—verticals, podcasts, 24-hour channels—demands it. Obviously this applies to clubs that are steadily losing games or are in relegation scraps. But crisis can also befall clubs that aren’t winning games convincingly. Even league front-runners can be in some state of duress due to injury, suspension, or shoddy set-piece defending. But most often we hear about big clubs that are underperforming because of their creative issues; or due to a lack of commitment; or because of highly publicized friction between players, ownership, management, or some combination thereof.
Chelsea have been tiptoeing around crisis for about six weeks now—too long a period for a club that looked set to push Manchester City in a title race. To begin with, their roster is all but depleted. Injuries to Ben Chilwell, Reece James, Andreas Christensen, and Trevoh Chalobah, as well as recent positive COVID-19 tests for Thiago Silva and N’Golo Kanté, forced manager Thomas Tuchel to abandon his trusted back-three formation for the first time all season. Defensive stalwart Antonio Rüdiger is in the final six months of his contract and seems to be looking everywhere but Stamford Bridge for his next move. And despite spending more than $100 million on an out-and-out, something-out-of-nothing striker in the summer, it’s still unclear where Chelsea’s goals are going to come from. Also, last week, that striker pledged his undying love for Inter Milan.
Lukaku to @SkySport: "I really hope from bottom of my heart to return to Inter not at the end of my career, but when I'm still at top level to win more together". #CFC— Fabrizio Romano (@FabrizioRomano) December 30, 2021
“I want apologize to the Inter fan, timing of my words was wrong: what you did for me will remain forever". pic.twitter.com/4Oz6ztuWMx
Romelu Lukaku’s interview with Sky Italia was weird for a few reasons, not least of which was the tone. He had his no. 9 Blues shirt hanging in the background as he talked about his displeasure with an uncomfortable fit in Chelsea’s system and his desire to go back to the San Siro to win trophies while he’s still at a “top level,” despite being 28 years old and in the first year of a five-year contract. Plus he’d gotten off to a hot start to the season! Form almost matching the heights he reached in Italy last season after leaving Manchester United in 2019 under a cloud. Before suffering an ankle injury against Malmo in the Champions League in October, he’d opened the campaign with four goals in his first four Chelsea appearances. He was picked as soon as he returned from injury reserve—and from COVID protocols—and went on to score the go-ahead goal in a 3-1 win against Aston Villa, and then again in the recent draw against Brighton.
Chelsea are in fact not in crisis. They are second in the Premier League table, unbeaten in their last nine games in all competitions, yet Tuchel has the look of a manager that feels the heat of failure coming to a rolling boil beneath him. After the Brighton draw, in which Chelsea conceded a last-minute equalizer, Tuchel was asked whether his team would be serious contenders in this season’s title race. The manager responded, with some exasperation at his growing list of unavailable players, “How should we compete in a title race?” Of course, having his tactics publicly criticized by one of his star players—Lukaku feels he gets less support in a 3-4-3 than in a back four—did nothing to bring a vital sense of unity to a club in a particularly exacting period of crunch.
Tuchel couldn’t let the transgression go unpunished, but surely he couldn’t face Liverpool, Tottenham, and Manchester City a combined five times in the month of January without his prized striker, specifically when goals have been so hard to come by without spot kicks or the attacking brilliance of the team’s wingbacks. Liverpool would surely grind them into dust; Antonio Conte’s revamped Tottenham side would expose that their constipations in the final third are “not a Romelu Lukaku problem.” And then they’d actually, truly become mired in crisis.
But then Liverpool turned out not to be a disaster, Lukaku apologized, and Chelsea swatted Tottenham aside with ease. None of it means much, though.
Lukaku entreating the fans to forgive him for their misunderstanding was as weird and pointless as the original interview. Tuchel leaving him out in the ensuing Liverpool game was a gambit that wasn’t a loss but also told us nothing in a bit of an upset, if we’re being honest: Christian Pulisic scored his first goal in 11 games, and who actually believes Mateo Kovacic could pull off that moment of backpedaling artistry again if he had an empty training ground and an entire bag of practice balls. Even after that result, the tie against Brighton still feels like a loss.
Chelsea doesn’t really get credit for this week’s Carabao Cup win over Tottenham, either, as Spurs literally scored on themselves twice. No statements were made, nothing was clarified. Lukaku never really settled into the game and let a chance or two go begging, but no one really noticed. Kai Havertz, another expensive attacking signing, continued the strangely good run of League Cup form that dwarfs his form everywhere else. Though there will be plenty of opportunities to collapse in the coming weeks, Chelsea take a two-goal lead into the second leg—and keep crisis at arm’s length a little longer.
It might have only been symbolic, but late in the second half, it seemed as if they might’ve even had the opportunity to push crisis away to a safe distance. It would’ve been one of those moments of pure synchronicity, an inflection point in a season, maybe. Hakim Ziyech drew it back just over the halfway line and pinged a through ball to Timo Werner that elicited ooos from the crowd. Werner split the defenders, corralled the pass …
… and lifted it directly into Hugo Lloris’s glove.