Thursday 23 November 2017

In pursuit of more for less

Roman Abramovich has changed but his ruthlessness remains, writes Dion Fanning

Dion Fanning

A nybody who has sat behind the Chelsea dug-out on a match day would know that the image of Ray Wilkins as just a nice guy may not be the whole truth.

Wilkins would often spend most of a game engaged in sledging those sitting on the opposition bench. Of course, he was multilingual, so when Inter Milan arrived at Stamford Bridge early this year, Wilkins was able to sledge them in Italian.

He has always been expert at telling people what they wanted to hear. Those who have worked with him say he bears a close resemblance to his smooth television persona and his nice guy act, they say, is not an act.

On TV, Wilkins calls everyone by their first name but, more importantly, in the real world he knows the first name of everybody he needs to know.

Wilkins is a political being and will understand how it works. On Thursday, he paid the price for Roman Abramovich's need for change when he was dismissed as assistant manager after watching the first half of a reserve match with Carlo Ancelotti.

When Abramovich arrived, he seemed intent on building an empire. Now, it seems, he is intent on not getting bored.

The club has been stabilised since the arrival of Ancelotti and has found success again, but Abramovich last week demonstrated his capacity for ruthlessness. Every so often, Abramovich will do something to remind people that he still cares what happens to the club.

In 2009, as his wealth diminished, Abramovich was said to have grown bored of Chelsea as his interest in art, encouraged by his girlfriend Daria Zhukova, grew. His response was to fire Phil Scolari and appoint Guus Hiddink, a man who seemed to engage Abramovich again.

That summer Abramovich, through his investment vehicle Millhouse, bought subordinated debt in Irish Nationwide, something that has been distressing the company recently.

At the same time as Millhouse was threatening to sue Ireland, Abramovich was suggesting a wage cap in European football. He would have considered this ludicrous when he was building the club, but Abramovich does things differently at Chelsea these days.

In his first two years at Chelsea, Abramovich spent more than £200million, an early statement that created the impression of Chelsea as wild spenders. Nothing like it would ever happen again.

In Mourinho's final full season, Chelsea would again spend huge money, specifically on Andriy Shevchenko. Abramovich was trying to stoke his own interest again. Shevchenko was a vanity signing and it came at the cost of alienating Mourinho.

At the time, Abramovich didn't care and the money he blew on Shevchenko seemed like a small price to pay. Mourinho drained those around him of energy, with his management style based on promoting the cult of his personality. Others were looking for Abramovich's attention, promoting the cult of their personality, even if their personalities were not as compelling as Mourinho's. But they got Abramovich's attention and Mourinho was gone. Until Carlo Ancelotti's arrival in 2009, it appeared that Abramovich had blown it. He ploughed through managers but never backed them with money. He didn't seem to have the faith and he didn't seem to have the cash.

Ancelotti's job has been masterful. Apart from his ability to mould winning football teams, Ancelotti has demonstrated two great gifts. He has the capacity to deal with powerful and capricious men and he knows how to handle an ageing squad.

The squad Abramovich began investing in seven years ago is weary now. The continued absence of Frank Lampard is emblematic of that. Lampard was never absent, playing in 164 consecutive games from 2001 to 2005, but now he hasn't played since August as he recovers from a hernia operation. Chelsea won most of these matches but, at Anfield last weekend, their midfield of John Obi Mikel, Yuri Zhirkov and Ramires was brushed aside.

Ramires was an expensive signing but in a summer when they flirted with Fernando Torres but never made a serious move for the player, it was another indication of how things have changed at Chelsea.

Abramovich has absorbed the interest-free loans he gave the club and turned them into equity, but there have been plenty of cuts. Last summer, they let highly paid stars like Michael Ballack, Joe Cole and Ricardo Carvalho leave, saving the club, it was estimated, around £25million in salaries. Chelsea have always wanted to be self-sufficient, but UEFA's rules on financial fair play will make this a need rather than a want.

The world has changed with them and Chelsea know they will only be outbid by Manchester City and that is something they can live with. They might want Torres but when the chance to sign him comes again, they know they can't compete with City.

How they rebuild will be the challenge. Ancelotti will hope that he can get more from Lampard, Terry, Drogba and the other over-30s. Today they will be without Michael Essien, sent off on his return from injury against Fulham, so there will be another chance for the understudies to impress.

Chelsea are hesitating on contracts for players like Gael Kakuta, whose arrival from Lens led to a charge from FIFA which Chelsea won on appeal last year, and Fabio Borini who were once said to represent the new wave.

Victory in the FA Youth Cup last season has encouraged those who believe Chelsea will soon see the benefit of the long-term investment.

"He's always been involved but now he's even more involved. He wants to know everything," Frank Arnesen, the man responsible for finding the young players (and not finding them) told The Guardian yesterday. He was talking about Abramovich and his interest in youth development.

Chelsea believe that search will pay off. They attracted the best in youth talent with good contracts but now they are only offering the very best, like young midfielder Josh McEachran, long-term deals.

Wilkins' case is only another example of the evolution of the club. Steve Clarke, his predecessor, was paid more than £1million a year. Wilkins was on a third of that and his successor may be paid even less.

If Paolo Maldini is the man, then he will earn more but in keeping with the new Chelsea, Maldini was one of the names mentioned on Thursday evening to create some excitement. The reality is different at Chelsea now. They will promote from within. Paul Clement, former assistant to Don Givens with the Irish under 21s, is one who might move up the Chelsea ladder.

Abramovich has nearly all he desires at Stamford Bridge now. Sunderland arrive today. Last season they were beaten 7-2 and the only unusual point about that result in the Ancelotti era is that the opponents managed to get two.

Abramovich wants more and he wants it for less. The European Cup has yet to arrive at Chelsea and some suggested Wilkins' sacking was the result of the club's exit last year against Inter Milan. It seems a high price to pay for some sledging in the dug-out and a defeat that was caused by many things, but hardly poor assistant managing.

In Abramovich's world, somebody always has to pay. It doesn't matter if it's Ireland or Ray Wilkins. The world has changed but Abramovich still wants what he wants. He wants a European Cup, but he is no longer prepared simply to pay for it.

Chelsea v Sunderland

Sky Sports 1, 4.0

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