Jose Mourinho, Antonio Conte, Maurizio Sarri, Frank Lampard, Thomas Tuchel and Graham Potter. What do they all have in common? No, not that they are the last six coaches at Stamford Bridge – but they have all publicly questioned the mentality of their dressing room.
They all in different ways have cited an ongoing problem inside the squad during difficult periods of the season. Frank Lampard almost three years ago focused on mindset, following a disappointing draw at Bournemouth in his first season in charge.
“You have to have a mindset within the group on the pitch because those things. We spoke at half-time about what Bournemouth might do, and then you rely on the players on the pitch and together they have to solve problems. It has been an issue.
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“Games change with goals, the atmosphere in the stadium changes and sometimes you have to dig in and concentrate that little bit more as a group. That we have been tested with a lot. We have talked about it a lot. Players have to find that solution on the pitch.”
We jump forward to 2022 and last August in the final weeks of Thomas Tuchel’s tenure. Chelsea had lost pretty meekly to Southampton. “If these key players are missing you need to show a different mentality. It’s not enough at the moment to win at Leeds and Southampton. We are humble enough to accept we can lose football matches but it’s too easy to push us off track, too easy to win challenges, too easy to bully us.”
Most ominously, Maurizio Sarri in the winter of discontent in the 2018/19 campaign noted that his Chelsea players were “extremely difficult to motivate” after a poor result at Arsenal.
This has been an ongoing issue at the club on the men’s side, the polar opposite to Emma Hayes’ fearless squad of consistent winners, whose levels of performance, mentality and quality have quickly made them the best Chelsea team, chasing down a fourth consecutive WSL title this season.
Todd Boehly’s new ownership has shown little reticence in shaking things up, be that on the pitch, in the dugout or in the boardroom. The latest change is to recruit an outsider to the football world. As first reported by The Telegraph on Monday, mental skills coach Gilbert Enoka has been recruited for a short-term consultancy role to change the culture at the club.
Enoka has been famed for his success with the All Blacks in rugby, spending more than a decade as the team’s mental skills coach. The sales pitch of Enoka’s influence is to bring a “no d—heads” policy, focusing on the squad, placing the team above the individual and rooting out the mentality issues a variety of coaches have identified since 2015.
Some of the reaction to this appointment has unsurprisingly pointed the finger back at an increasingly scrutinised Graham Potter, who only has racked up three Premier League wins in his last 13, tracking back to mid-October when the last away victory came at Aston Villa.
Chelsea look destined for mid-table mediocrity under their new coach, they are struggling to score and the lavish January spending will be under intense pressure to spark some improvement as soon as possible. But it would be disingenuous, as some have claimed, to throw all of Chelsea’s issues at the door of Potter, even if there are fair criticisms to be had.
Why is it that Sarri and Tuchel, two coaches who operated with different players expressed a similar issue? Why had an increasingly flaky and fragile spirit continued to rear its head through periods of the season?
Even if people cite Potter’s degree in emotional intelligence, is it wrong to delegate, or for Chelsea’s new owners to look for sufficient ways to address a cultural problem that was present in the final few years of the previous ownership? Is it also wrong to look outside the football bubble for solutions? The idea football cannot learn is arrogant, the idea Chelsea cannot evolve is also dangerously stubborn.
We are nearing the one-year mark of Roman Abramovich announcing his intention to sell the club, then being sanctioned by the UK Government following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. There has been an extreme level of upheaval in that time too, with new faces on and off the pitch, and a new coaching staff.
Enoka’s work focused on creating a management ethos within the All Blacks players, meaning that they were as accountable to their peers as their coach.
“A d—head makes everything about them” Enoka said in one of his more eye-catching quotes. “Often teams put up with it because a player has so much talent. We look for early warning signs and wean the big egos out pretty quickly. Our motto is, if you can’t change the people, change the people.”
Chelsea have been guilty of hanging onto those type of characters in recent years. Most impactful seeing underperforming players continue to be indulged, handed new deals, or outlast a consistent flow of head coaches despite their best years being behind them. Some of those faces were sold last summer, some are yet to be filtered out. But purely seeing this issue as one solved by deep pockets is proven flawed by the evidence in front of us.
Millions and millions in transfer fees between all the coaches who noted a mentality issue could not resolve it – building that winning mentality is not an overnight fix either, but in approaching Enoka, it is further proof that Chelsea are trying to leave no stone unturned.
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