In the pomp and circumstance of the Champions League anthem and pre-match rituals, the Matthew Harding Stand unveiled a mosaic in honour of the triumph of 2012 at the Allianz. It was a beauty to behold. Wonderfully colour-coordinated with the blue-silhouetted trophy for the visiting supporters to see. A true credit to those involved with organising the flags and demonstrations which take place regularly at Stamford Bridge.
Though, there was a slight issue. Placed on either side of the trophy were two banners with the phrase “Our City” and “Our Stadium”. The latter was fine, resting over the advertising hoardings, whilst the former found its way to the back of the stand in a messy and uncaring fashion. A moment of miscommunication and error which hurt that which was supposed to be perfect.
That error in flag presentation very much set the tone for an evening which humbled all in blue.
Most of the build-up to Tuesday’s tie was soaked in nostalgia. From Frank Lampard’s stunning volley in 2005 to the Miracle of Munich – Chelsea fans were treated to a smorgasbord of joy to reflect on. It was all about the past glories, those fleeting wonderful days like the 19th of May 2012 which so perfectly captures the greatest moment of all our supporting lives.
The grandeur of a firework display preceding the game reinstalled the past, as did the constant chanting to the away end of that momentous night which never leaves us – in many ways it defines us. Though in relation to what unravelled on the pitch, maybe that is an issue.
No matter how many times we love replaying Didier’s header, Petr’s saves and Ashley’s line about beating Germans on pens, there is a sense the club has been living off the grandeur of that night ever since. And there is much mileage to live off for sure. Even after enduring an extremely difficult night on Tuesday, fans can still sleep happily knowing they witnessed the club they love capture club football’s biggest prize.
Chelsea’s last victory in a Champions League knockout tie was in the Spring of 2014 when Demba Ba’s flailing leg sent the whole of Stamford Bridge into raptures – knocking out Paris Saint Germain after losing the first leg 3-1. Even if the Senegalese forward wasn’t regarded as one of Europe’s elite, some of his teammates certainly were.
Coming close to the end of their careers, the Blues still boasted Petr Cech, John Terry and Frank Lampard in the starting eleven – players who had European pedigree and had been involved in the club’s biggest triumphs. Woven into their foundations, these players exhibited that unshakable belief and nous to drain every drop of knowledge at the most pressured of times. Along with those three, Gary Cahill and David Luiz was the back two at The Allianz, and Branislav Ivanovic made a career on big European goals. They were also coached by an energised Jose Mourinho, whose tactical approach and man-management still appeared fresh and inspired.
Since then the Blues have fallen twice to The Parisians in the Last 16, both in 2015 and 16. Then being torn apart by the genius of Lionel Messi in 2018, also at the same stage of the competition.
Domestically, the club have been in a battle to retain their seat at Europe’s top table for the last two campaigns under Antonio Conte and Maurizio Sarri, and this year Frank Lampard’s struggle is no different.
The 2019/20 Champions League adventure always felt like a bit of a side quest from the main objective of getting into the top four.
The reality that even if Lampard was prioritising European glory, it did not matter. His side was outplayed from start to finish by a vastly superior outfit filled with match-winners. The ruthless nature of Serge Gnabry’s movement and finishing hasn’t been witnessed at Stamford Bridge this season, and highlights the price of losing Eden Hazard. Hans-Dieter Flick also had the goalscoring prowess of Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Muller, whilst Olivier Giroud and Tammy Abraham failed to get on the end of enticing crosses.
The sheer gap in quality was most demonstrated by Bayern’s first substitution – Philippe Coutinho, a player who would stroll into Chelsea’s starting eleven.
As the vibrant home crowd was drained of enthusiasm as 0-1 became 0-2 and then 0-3 – this was as a clear indication of where Chelsea stand in 2020.
The fall in quality and competitiveness started long before Lampard’s return, and to pin this result at the feet of his regime would be extremely naïve and reductive – something which became widely present under Sarri too. Since the famous spine of the winning team departed, adequate replacements have not been found, and so expectedly, the level has dropped.
The club have still won major trophies. A Premier League title in 2017, an FA Cup in 2018 and a Europa League last May, but the previous dominance of Chelsea has faded significantly in recent seasons – Tuesday felt like the culmination of many years of poor recruitment and short-term thinking.
This was an evening that called into question everything surrounding the direction and intention of the West London club.
As I made the walk home in the freezing London night, my Dad – who I attend games with regularly – made a remark that the game was “proof the squad needs an overhaul” which it absolutely does.
Both Chelsea’s personnel on Tuesday and their style of play was striking to witness.
An eleven compiled by three different coaches.
Willy Caballero, Antonio Rudiger, Marcus Alonso, Ross Barkley and Olivier Giroud were all signed under a counter-attacking Conte.
Mateo Kovacic and Jorginho brought under a possession-based Sarri
Mason Mount, Reece James and substitute Tammy Abraham introduced during the youth revolution of Frank Lampard.
The only exceptions being captain Cesar Azpilicueta and Andreas Christensen. The Spaniard being the current squad’s longest serving player since 2012, whilst the Dane is a product of the club’s academy introduced in 2017.
A muddled mix of talent, ability and age lining up against an institution of world football. The result proved to be calamitous and unsurprisingly so.
Chelsea, whether by design or not, were forced to sit deep and look to counter. Although in 2012 this was the norm, eight years beyond those nights of defensive solidity, Chelsea are very different. At the half-time whistle the statistic of 65% possession for the Germans was a stark reading, as the hosts are a team no longer accustomed to not having the ball.
The likes of Jorginho and Kovacic are players whose oxygen is ball retention- they are not spoilers, they are creators. In their careers they’ve only ever known progressive play, so a night of pragmatism goes against their core nature. For all of his recent struggles, the presence of N’Golo Kante was sorely missed.
In honesty, going through each position and analysing why and how they failed would be a disservice to a wider debate.
Chelsea have felt like a club wrangling with its own identity in the previous two seasons. The toxic battle with Sarriball, the uncertainty over the current ownership of Roman Abramovich, and trust in a young coach in Lampard – the path forward remains hidden or undecided.
What do Chelsea want to be?
Is the club going to revert to a type of counterattacking, reactive football – with short-term thinking from above regarding the head coach and recruitment policy?
Or will they look for a refreshed, proactive approach- backing a younger coach with improved players, further entrusting academy talent and a modern style of play?
The former has taken Chelsea to now, where they continue to stumble further behind the likes of Manchester City and Liverpool domestically, and embarrassed by the might of Bayern when reaching the serious end of the Champions League.
At the same point of the season in 2017, Chelsea were 11 points clear of second-placed Manchester City and 14 clear of Liverpool.
Currently, they sit 35 points behind leaders Liverpool and 13 behind Manchester City.
It felt symbolic that the game preceding Bayern would be against Jose Mourinho, the man who masterminded many of the club’s best victories and instilled a winning mentality into a core that stayed even after he departed in 2007. Though, Mourinho’s style now looks slow, lethargic and tired – outfoxed twice by Lampard who intends to be more attacking than his counterpart.
The final echoes of the old Chelsea were there to see on Tuesday – but instead of an unmovable blue wall, it was a fracturing glass panel, eventually shattered to pieces.
Chelsea have been the win-now club, but recently that model has begun to look tired and strained. The jumbled mix of players, systems and intention over a number of years all came home to roost under the lights and was starkly clear how the club has needed a rethink in many areas.
Even with doubts over Lampard, given the loss of Hazard, no transfers, an introduction of untested talent and the worst injury list in many years, Chelsea still find themselves in pole position to finish in the top four. The big question now is whether the right steps will be made to lay the foundations for something special to take the club into a bold new era.
Even with all the early excitement around Jurgen Klopp on Merseyside, it was clear substantial investment was needed after years of stagnancy. They recognized a need to clear out deadwood and recruit the world’s best in order to transform Liverpool into a formidable threat.
First in attack it was Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah; then in defence with Virgil Van Dijk and Alisson Becker. Klopp’s inspired man-management and vision has rejuvenated Liverpool’s spirit and mentality, but it is hard to deny that without the board putting serious money down to elevate key areas and plug gaping deficiencies, the German would still find his squad falling short at the final hurdle.
The acquisition of Hakim Ziyech from Ajax for £37m is certainly a strong start, and can hopefully inform the level of recruitment needed. As fanciful as this may sound, if Chelsea could add a Jadon Sancho, an Alex Grimaldo or a Kalidou Koulibaly to their squad, the club’s fortunes could be radically transformed.
The current squad contains an uneasy mix of players. Some developing into the prime of their careers, some in the middle, and some who have question marks over their ability. There are also of course the older ones who – putting it bluntly – look past their sell-by-date.
Already plans will be in motion for the summer regarding ins and outs. The contract dispute with Willian hit another snag with the Brazilian admitting in an interview after the game that there’s a potential for an exit. With demands from the 33-year-old for a reported three-year contract, it is time the club respectfully declines and moves forward.
The same with Pedro and Marcus Alonso – two players whose best days are behind them with a need for younger replacements. Ross Barkley’s career has been one filled with false dawns and in a stacked area, Barkley could slip out if Ruben Loftus-Cheek scales the heights he did before his injury. In other words, it’s probably best to cut ties there too.
There are major doubts over the likes of Antonio Rudiger and Kepa Arrizabalaga. Admittedly different cases, but two individuals who have failed to replicate the form of last season.
Putting personal bias aside regarding my own feelings towards the German, it feels like Chelsea will need a Van-Dijk level signing to dominate that area. Kepa, with his high fee and age, will likely be given another chance and still has the potential to rediscover form, but that is out of hope rather than evidence from this season.
Not all of these departures will transpire in one summer- rarely ever happening at top clubs- but for Lampard to mould this squad into his own image, outgoings need to be as much a priority as incomings.
The hope which Lampard spoke of after the ruins of Tuesday’s defeat will be in relation to his young talent. Other than the revelation of Kovacic – the brightest sparks have been the club’s next generation.
Abraham’s goals, the raw talent of Mount, the assured nature of Tomori and the creativity of James are all leading the way for a bright future if given further time to develop into better players. And Lampard has continuously professed his commitment to seeing such aspirations become reality. The forgotten pair of Callum Hudson-Odoi and Christian Pulisic – both injured currently – also add vibrancy and raw talent into a stagnating attack.
For sure it was a chastening evening for Mount, James and Abraham – all who struggled to varying degrees. Mount’s frantic shot high into the Harding Upper was likely a bowing to pressure from the crowd, and showed signs of naivety over intelligence. James battled with the electric sprinting of Alphonso Davies endlessly throughout the match, and ultimately could not shut him down and prevent Bayern’s third. Abraham’s inability to read his teammates crosses into the box irritated the crowd as the night turned sour.
The hope is these harsh lessons prove to be beneficial and not crippling in the short-term for their burgeoning careers.
For sure it must have been most difficult for Lampard on the touchline, so often the architect of many iconic moments on Champions League nights. Even during his playing career, defeats would come down to a heart-breaking penalty shootout or poor officiating.
He will know more than anyone what it takes on the grandest of nights to achieve the highest accolades, but even his wisest words can’t overhaul a squad that has needed surgery for a number of years.
It is not long before we reach the tenth anniversary of Chelsea’s greatest night and there will undoubtedly be another round of nostalgia when that day comes. However, it is imperative the club does not allow itself to sleepwalk into stagnancy and allow the past to rule its future.