When Roman Abramovich was announced as Chelsea’s new owner in 2003 speculation was rife as to why he did it.
As the journalist and author James Montague noted last year, “He was young, publicity shy, a governor of a faraway, frozen province in Russia and had made a lot of money in oil and gas.”
In a rare interview with the BBC Abramovich gave a sliver of insight into his motivation by admitting he was ‘bored and wanted a new challenge’.
It’s fair to say that Abramovich’s sense of ennui has evaporated since taking control at Stamford Bridge, with his tenure defined by two key facts; the club have reached 15 finals during his 16 years in charge and during that time he has been through 14 permanent managers.
The reasons for those divorces have varied. Some have exited the scene after a poor season, others after winning league titles. Some failed to deliver the Champions League, while one did. He was appointed first as caretaker, then permanent manager, and was gone before November. Some were a stop gap, others felt like they stopped by for a gap year, including the most recent example, Maurizio Sarri.
It would be wrong to suggest Sarri was unaware of the club’s habits.
"We want to win. But the history of this club is a little bit strange," Sarri said. "In 2014-15, I think 87 points, 15-16 [it was] 50 points. That's very strange, with the same coach [Jose Mourinho] and the same group. Then 93 points [in 16-17], then 70 points last season with the same coach and group. So the numbers of this group are a little bit strange. I need to understand why. I am studying. I think that these numbers tell us something. I have to understand why. Then, if I am able to do it, I have to help my players be at the same level for a long period.”
The polarising nature of the Abramovich era presented itself again with Sarri. Chelsea won the Europa League and qualified for the Champions League by finishing 3rd in the Premier League. They also finished 26 points behind eventual champions Manchester City and suffered an embarrassing 6-0 defeat against Pep Guardiola’s side (as well as a similar 4-0 demolition away to Bournemouth).
His relationship with the squad began brightly, but by the turn of the year, Sarri sought to air his grievances in public. From that moment on it was difficult to believe his tenure at Chelsea would survive the summer.
The deconstruction of Sarri hit a nadir when one pundit argued that his willingness to admire his Europa League winners’ medal was a sign he was not cut out for Chelsea. The argument hinted Sarri was someone in opposition to the club’s identity — which itself is difficult to pinpoint.
A 2013 interview with Frank Arnesen painted an interesting portrait of Abramovich. He described the Russian as an owner that believes in developing young players, that wants his teams to play attractive football and is thoughtful and considered about everything he does.
It is impossible to argue that Chelsea have developed exciting youngsters, with their record in the FA Youth Cup something to admire. Transitioning those same youngsters to the first team, however, has been an issue, as seen with Callum Hudson-Odoi this season.
Last week saw confirmation Sarri had opted to return to Italy and take over as manager of Juventus, which leaves Chelsea at a crossroads. Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur have all employed their current managers for at least three seasons. That fact points to a subtle shift towards project managers at England’s top clubs, with each coach given time and money (to varying degrees) with which to build a side.
By dismissing Sarri the boom-and-bust cycle at Chelsea has continued. That is not to say the decision to part with him was wrong. His football was inflexible. It did feel like some opponents had worked him out, at points, it appeared like the players had not bought into his methods. Both the need for continuity and a replacement for Sarri can be true, but eventually, Chelsea will have to abandon the habit of a lifetime.
The departure of Eden Hazard and uncertainty over their transfer ban has made for choppy waters at Chelsea, and a long-term vision would be the perfect antidote to that. Frank Lampard may be that man, he may not. Regardless, Abramovich must now think differently. He was bored when he bought Chelsea, and for the sake of the club’s success moving forward, he must become bored with the constant change that has defined the club under his guidance.