When something comes along and changes the world, then it is only natural it inspires a breed of copycats. Amongst the sheep there is usually shepherd showing the way.
Football’s very own revolution started in earnest with the arrival of Pep Guardiola as Barcelona manager in 2008, although the foundations had been laid some time before his arrival – thirty years in fact when Johan Cruyff campaigned the for the establishment of an academy made in the image of Ajax’s very own, very successful production line. The farmhouse – La Masia – was born.
As La Masia was made in the image of Ajax’s vastly successful academy so was Guardiola a reflection of Cruyff, his mentor and former boss at Barcelona.
The midfielder turned manager oversaw what is now generally known as the finest team to have ever graced the game. Three successive league titles between 2008 and 2011 came with Guardiola at the helm, while two Champions League successes came, both against Manchester United, in 2009 and 2011.
All the while Barca were going about changing the face of the game, in west London, a Russian looked to change the history of Chelsea, a club pining for a first league title in fifty years. As the Spanish side used subtlety and sleight of foot to get to the top, Abramovich bludgeoned his way to the pinnacle of the Premier League both in the transfer market and on the pitch.
The Chelsea model sits starkly at odds with the developments at Barcelona. Around the time of Abramovich’s takeover of Chelsea, Barca were on the verge of unleashing a revolution on world football. Months after the Russian took control in 2003, Lionel Messi made his debut for Barcelona B.
Led by the likes of Didier Drogba, Michael Essien, Frank Lampard and John Terry, the first generation of the new era at Chelsea forged an image that has in many ways meant they are the victims of their own success.
Under Jose Mourinho, they weren’t pretty but pretty effective – shackles they struggle to break free of to this day. Even as Champions of Europe they drew on the past, giving Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba leading roles to rekindle the glimmer of glory that looked to have slipped away. A line can still be traced back to Mourinho, even though he left the club some five years ago.
Now though, Chelsea want to tread along the trail blazed by Barcelona, or at least create their own bastardised version of it. Champions League glory in Munich has rekindled Abramovich’s desire to bring a brand of football to Stamford Bridge that has not been seen in some time and he is lubricating his vision with his vast wealth.
Barcelona’s model appeals to the Russian and the wheels have been set in motion - he even wanted the man responsible to taking Tiki-Taka to the masses, Guardiola, to take over before he settled on the man that went some way to exposing its flaws, Roberto di Matteo.
If Guardiola was hard to buy then personnel has not been so hard to come by. Where once stood powerful, muscular athletes now stand squat playmakers and speed merchants. The King, Didier Drogba, is dead and the Kid, Torres, ascends to the throne.
Worker ants Florent Malouda and Salmon Kalou, mainstays of Chelsea’s side in years gone by have gone (or are going, in Malouda’s case), and have been expensively replaced by the likes of Jaun Mata, Edin Hazard and Marko Marin.
Chelsea’s front six look like taking on a completely different form to years gone by; In the now infamous Champions League semi-final between Barcelona and Chelsea in 2009, the Blues front six were as follows: Lampard, Essien, Ballack, Anelka, Drogba and Malouda. Craft and strength weren’t exactly in perfect harmony.
Fast forward to a potential meeting between the pair next season and Torres could be backed up Hazard, Marin and Mata, while potential new arrivals Oscar dos Santos Emboaba Junior and Hulk could further augment an exciting-looking attacking line up.
But for all Abramovich’s desire to follow in the footsteps of the most attractive, and successful team on the planet, such is the peculiarities of Barca’s style that it would be foolhardy to try and replicate and hope for any sort of success.
Their style is just that, theirs. There is no such player as ‘another Lionel Messi’, nor are there replicas of Andres Iniesta and Xavi. Their unique ability mixed in with such an idiosyncratic football education means that no matter how hard they try and no matter how much Abramovich spends, they will not be able to do what Barcelona do.
The fact that they need to ship players in, even at youth level, rather than produce their own indicates they haven’t learned the slightest thing from Barca any way.
No, the best option for Chelsea is to avoid trying to join Barca and instead work on beating them, something they did successfully last season.
That is not to say the defensive model they produced in the Champions League should be replicated – it is unlikely to be successful on a regular basis; luck, circumstance and resilience played too large a part in order for it to be studied and synthesised into a reusable replica – not that Abramovich seeks such a thing anyway.
Of Chelsea’s new additions over the past 12 months, one thing that is particularly noticeable is the abundance of pace they have at their disposal compared to recent years.
With Torres leading the line then the dynamic of Chelsea’s play will change and with Hazard in particular providing support along with the young legs of Marin and Oscar, they look perfectly suited to playing on the counter-attack – a style no less exciting than Barcelona’s and ruthlessly effective. No doubt the have the defensive strength to back up swift counters and destructive midfielders that can break up play and pull the trigger – Frank Lampard may even flourish here as his age forces him to adapt his game away from his box-to-box style.
If Abramovich really wants Chelsea to carve out an identity for themselves, then it would be in their long-term interests, something they appear more concerned with these days than before, to create something special based on their strengths, and not an unreachable ideal.
They showed last season that the age of Tiki-Taka does have its flaws and can be exploited – and the world may be falling out of love with Spanish intricacies in general if Euro 2012 is anything to go by.
Its just unfortunate for Chelsea that the man that is showing them the way forward, Jose Mourinho, who Abramovich let go after a power struggle largely to do with style of play, found out how to stop Barcaelona by playing on the counter, scoring a bucket-load of goals and earning a plethora of new fans.
His swashbuckling Madrid were the anti-Barca last season, pouncing at break-neck speed and bearing down on goal within seconds of winning back the ball, as apposed to working meticulously to prise open a goal-scoring chance. They learned after years of chopping down their rivals and sitting deep that something had to change. The Catalan club had to succumb in the end. Chelsea can thank their lucky stars that Hazard is the 'new Ronaldo'.
It is an approach far less specific than Barcelona and one which could be successfully adopted by the new generation of Chelsea players.
If it’s Mourinho’s old image Chelsea are currently trying to escape, then perhaps his new look is one they should consider adopting.
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