Friday, 23 January 2009

Alan Dawson on Steve Clarke

Great article in Goal today by Alan Dawson:

What has been Chelsea's biggest loss this season?

Could it have been the relinquishing of their astonishing home record when Liverpool beat them 1-0 at Stamford Bridge due to a tenth minute Xabi Alonso effort in late October?

What about the 3-1 away defeat against AS Roma in the Champions League, where the Blues always looked second best?

Chelsea were leading London rivals Arsenal for half an hour, only for Dutch forward Robin van Persie to steal a win with two exquisite strikes, so that may come close.

The recent humbling at Old Trafford - when Nemanja Vidic, Wayne Rooney, and Dimitar Berbatov all converted their chances - may top the lot.

If one thinks outside the box then the axing of 15 of Chelsea's scouts could be worthy of mention, but considering the lack of exciting and dynamic youth talent (barring a promising and prolific young striker called Fabio Borini, who joined the club from Bologna in 2007), what exactly did those scouts contribute to the Stamford Bridge outfit? Perhaps we will not know for another few years.

Roman Abramovich has been hit by the credit crunch. Russia's economy has been at least as hard hit as the United Kingdom's, the stock markets and oil prices in Roman's homeland having plummeted, even prompting stories that the Chelsea owner would have to choose between selling his London SW6 club or his £200,000,000 yacht in an attempt to cut his losses.

Yet notwithstanding all of this, what about the loss of the only prominent remnant of the pre-Abramovich era in west London? The middle-man; the go-between; the link between the players and the manager; the good cop to former boss Jose Mourinho's bad cop; the paternal Scot who'll put his arm around you and motivate you to buck up; and the defensively astute tactician, trainer, and coach, who can spot a leaky rearguard and find the perfect prescription. Yes, I'm talking about Steve Clarke.

Clarke, a right-back during his playing days and a Chelsea legend, having accumulated 421 first-team appearances (the fifth highest total in the club's history) left Chelsea to join former Blues team-mate Gianfranco Zola in November - on the other side of London, at West Ham United.

A brief role at Newcastle United as a caretaker manager followed his retirement as a player, before he took on coaching roles at Chelsea's youth set-up. He then worked his way up to the rank of assistant boss in 2004.

The role of the assistant is oft-overlooked, but their contribution is significant, especially when a foreign manager comes into the game who is unaware of or inexperienced in the rigours, the physicality, and the pace of the Premier League. Jose Mourinho relied on Clarke during those early years to wise him up on who was who on the opposition rosters. Even Arsene Wenger had Pat Rice when he first arrived at Arsenal.

Luiz Felipe Scolari could have done with Clarke for a little while longer.

Is it a coincidence that Chelsea have looked increasingly weaker in the weeks that have followed Clarke's departure? Is Chelsea's biggest loss West Ham's biggest gain?

The Blues have been exposed at the back with their inability to stifle set-pieces, their midfield has lacked potency, and the fluency all round has dissipated.

Contrast that with Clarke's arrival at West Ham.

Prior to his appointment at Zola's side, the Hammers had not kept a clean sheet in over 1,500 minutes of football - a record that stretched as far back as February in the previous season. Yet since he arrived at the Boleyn Ground, they have gone on to deny three sides a goal, one of these results being a shut-out at Anfield against then-League leaders Liverpool.

The statistics provide a telling story.

In Clarke's last 17 league games with Chelsea, he helped oversee 11 wins, and six draws.

Since his resignation, the Blues have contested 18 league games, have won ten, drawn five, and lost three.

During the four games that he was present at Chelsea this season, they conceded just twice, which is a ratio of 0.5 per game. Since leaving for the Hammers, Chelsea have conceded at a ratio of 0.6 per game.

Not the most drastic of increases, but combined with the average points gained then the results are more noticeable. With Clarke, Chelsea gained 2.5 points per game, but without him they have only mustered 1.95 points per game.

It could even have been Mourinho's vengeance on the club that fired him that he rang Gianfranco Zola and recommended that the Italian tactician hire Clarke as his assistant as a matter of urgent priority.

We have seen teams suffer defensively in the past due to a backroom changearound. When Carlos Queiroz left Manchester United for the first time, after assisting Sir Alex Ferguson to the title, United then went on to slip out of the top two, handing automatic qualification to the Champions League to Chelsea and Arsenal.

Not only has Steve Clarke left, but after Mourinho's departure, Chelsea also lost Baltemar Brito (an assistant); Rui Faria (a conditioning coach); Silvinho Louro (goalkeeping coach); and finally Andre Villas Boas (chief scout).

With Mourinho, Rui Faria, and Clarke all gone, Chelsea have lost their rigidity, and the rigorous regimes that they imposed seem to have been replaced with routines that are yet to bear fruit. If Scolari is going to achieve anything from this season then he better hope Ray Wilkins - who never really hit it off at QPR - starts to make things tick in the background, while he takes care of the foreground; a task that is also one of the highest order.

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