Back in 2005 both Jamie Carragher and Rafa Benitez came out and said Steven Gerrard made the right decision in turning down a move to Chelsea to remain with Liverpool for the rest his Premier League career, but 12 years on chances are they will think differently if asked about Ross Barkley biting this particular bullet. Scouse centre backs and their cult hero managers may view things differently to the rest of us (special nights and all that) but even they cannot fail to see this was a career-making offer the Evertonian couldn't refuse. The fact that Stevie G chose instead to stay true to one club and wallow in title-free splendid isolation for the rest of his days says more about his lack of nerve back then and everything about Barkley's ambition now.
Chelsea's reputed long-held belief in and pursuance of him is also the clearest indicator yet of the club's chosen path post-Conte-driven success and pre-Abramovich-driven Stamford Bridge renovation, that fast-approaching nomadic state during which we will need to be as penny-pinching as Arsenal were immediately after their Highbury move, but hopefully without displaying the same haughty martyrdom that accompanied it back then, a state of mind that has only served to undermine their title ambitions ever since. Remember, Chelsea bid £32m for Gerrard all those years ago and initially offered a mere £35m for Barkley this time around, so our move for him made obvious financial sense and with Antonio Conte also said to be an admirer there were no negatives other than there being nothing not to like. The boss has subsequently shown signs of distancing himself from this comment and perhaps all other deals, but there is no denying the transfer coup when measured against the outlandish sums spent in recent weeks on players of relatively similar age and ability.
Moreover, continuing the comparison with his Liverpudlian counterpart, Barkley is thought to fit perfectly into Antonio's preferred 3-5-2 and 3-4-3 formations, much in the same way as Gerrard would have slotted into Jose's 4-3-3 alongside Lamps and Makelele. In the end it was 'The Bison' who played the hoped-for Gerrard role, replacing Tiago in what was a typical Mourinho power-based decision. It goes without saying that Conte would have done exactly the same thing, preferring muscle in midfield himself, and now there is every likelihood we will see Barkley, Kante, Drinkwater, Bakayoko and the one exception to this rule, Cesc, fight it out for three places every week. Like it or not (and, by the look on his face of late, he doesn't) it is clear that the boss sees these players in these formations as the only way forward and is content/resigned to work with them in a somewhat make-do-and-mend attempt at counteracting Pep Guardiola's all-conquering system.
As we all know, it will take a shock of seismic proportions to stop Manchester City walking away with the Premier League title this season and, if every fawning pundit in the land is proved right for just once their life, the Champions League trophy and World Club Cup will not be far behind. Antonio's doing his hamstrung best, Jose's being well funded to do his worst, Arsene's done his usual, Klopp's pressing for all he is worth and Potch has strutted his Spursy stuff, yet to no avail. Guardiola is The Man, we are now told in one never-ending stream of print and podcasts, and his team is The Team, not only of the season so far, but also of the rest of it, the next, the one after that, on and on until he tires of world domination and books in for another of those New York sabbaticals. But to be fair, anyone who has watched City play of late could not fail to be impressed and they are undoubtedly the best team we have come up against other than the singularly inspired Roma outfit in that group stage game at the Bridge. Their points record also speaks for itself, so why should there be any doubting their credentials when it comes to predicting an unprecedented decade of domination?
Well, have the last few months really been so spellbinding in terms of the football played and the tactics deployed? Has the aesthetic difference been so stark, between Pep's boxing clever style and Antonio's 3-5-2 formative overhaul of last season as to warrant so much effusive praise being heaped upon the Catalan? I think not, though others will disagree and it is, of course, a contentious subject for debate. However, perhaps the more pressing matter for Chelsea fans is not the prospect of City domination, but the ways and means of our suppressing it [ahead of our rivals] should the nightmare become reality. Options are limited, due in no small part to our impending stadium renovation, but nevertheless the first to be considered has to be matching fire with fire, finance with finance. Of course, option A - Financial Doping of the Wenger kind is no longer as effective as it once was, even though it now appears to be the acceptable face of capitalism in some quarters, those Abu Dhabi boys having used it to the fullest effect to get them where they are today while receiving nowhere near the amount of criticism levelled at us in the past.
Still, moaning about it does not help the situation, which is summed up by realistic acceptance of the fact that City will outbid any other English club in the transfer market if and when it wants to and the rest of us must put up with what amounts to the second rate from now on. That said, Virgil van Dijk isn't second rate and he chose Liverpool ahead of City, but at a hefty price. Alexis Sanchez is also no second-rater, but in the end his agent drove too hard a bargain for everyone bar United, a club Arsene Wenger has grown to respect as being more like his own, apparently. Turning a blind eye to the hypocrisy of placing clubs with 60/75K capacity stadia on self-sufficient moral high ground whilst at the same time looking down on the rest as either financial dopers or no-hopers, the Frenchman appears only too pleased to do Sanchez business with an Ed Woodward who noodley-doodles all the day in preference to taking twice as much from the coffers of cash rich but classless Man City. Quite frankly, mock though the media may do at our links to Carroll, Crouch, Dzeko et al, Chelsea is better off out of all this tawdry, grossly inflated, double-standard dealing, both literally and metaphorically.
A second, far more radical, option B would be to Give the Head Coach Increased Powers, lock, stock and barrel, including sole responsibility for everything on the transfer front. This radical change in policy would find favour with all those fans who continually criticise the board for every failure in the transfer market, but would Conte really want the increased workload and in this day and age isn't the whole concept of giving your manager a free rein an impractical proposition unless you have unlimited funding and can afford to make the occasional £50m mistake? Consider too that a once reined-in Conte may still simply go for highly experienced players rather than make greater use of the Academy, an acceptable strategy for many and not necessarily a bad thing if it meant continued success while we were away from the Bridge, but it is also worth recalling at this point that when Jose had much less on his plate and much greater clout over transfer dealings he chose to sign off on the permanent departures of Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Mohamed Salah.
Suffice to say, this option is fraught with danger and perhaps we would do well to remember the time Chelsea paid £13.2m to bring Andre Villas-Boas to Stamford Bridge to enact his Barcelona-lite ideas that had previously worked for him at Porto - in just over a year AVB was gone, the club having spent an unprecedented amount of time, effort and compensation to achieve very little, the remit being to drastically overhaul the club in a way many feel Conte should be empowered to do now. The onus would be on the Italian to deliver within budget, which in itself might be off-putting, but Conte has recently indicated he accepts the current Mancunian duopoly when it comes to the marketplace, stressing the need to overcome it in the only way possible... work, work and more work. Encouragingly, he has stated he is prepared to do this with the players at his disposal, even going so far as to say that he is happy with the current crop and his presence at both FA Youth Cup and Chekatrade Trophy games is also a sign that he feels there may be more where Andreas Christensen and Ethan Ampadu came from.
It is because of this work ethic and an acceptance that, albeit grudgingly, living within our means and making the most use of our own resources is a necessity proving to be the mother of a new invention, a third way emerges which is arguably the only realistic one if the club does not want to forever follow in the footsteps of the North West Wastrels. So, what was already a remarkably fallow field of options is narrowed to just one, option C - An Academy Pipeline Fuelling The First Team Squad and supplemented by the purchase of players on the manager's wish list, over time and whenever financially viable. With a core of Academy players graduating each year, not only becoming part of the first team squad but being regularly used, we would in one fell swoop reduce the need to buy to merely satisfy squad depth requirements. No more short term fixes, the Drinkwaters, the Zappacostas, the hulking centre forwards Plan B-ing their place in the squad when Tammy Abraham does the job just as well, if not better, it would be a clear policy change and a pathway for Academy players. And to answer those sceptics who believe that the quality simply isn't there to call on, I would ask them to take a quick look at these recent Development Squad teams and their achievements:-
FA Youth Cup - Chelsea 4 Sc**thorpe United 0 (Man City go out 6-5 on penalties and Man Utd go out 3-1 on penalties)
Chelsea team (4-diamond-2) Jamie Cumming, Reece James (c), Marc Guehi, Ethan Ampadu, Juan Castillo, Conor Gallagher, Tariq Uwakwe, Billy Gilmour, George McEachran, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Martell Taylor-Crossdale.
FA Youth Cup - Chelsea 7 West Brom 0
Chelsea team (4-2-3-1) Jamie Cumming; Tariq Lamptey, Marc Guehi, Jon Panzo, Juan Castillo; Conor Gallagher (c), George McEachran; Tariq Uwakwe, Tino Anjorin, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Daishawn Redan.
Checkatrade Trophy - last 32 MK Dons 0 Chelsea 4 (Man City went out 4-3 on penalties to Chesterfield and Man Utd did not put a team in)
Chelsea team (3-4-3) Eduardo; Reece James, Ethan Ampadu, Jake Clarke-Salter (c), Dujon Sterling, Trevoh Chalobah, Kyle Scott, Kenedy, Charly Musonda, Michy Batshuayi, Callum Hudson-Odoi.
Checkatrade Trophy - Quarter finals Chelsea 3 v Oxford Utd 0
Chelsea team (3-4-2-1) Marcin Bulka; Dujon Sterling, Reece James, Ethan Ampadu, Trevoh Chalobah, Juan Castillo, Kyle Scott, Ruben Sammut (c), Harvey St Clair, Callum Hudson-Odoi; Daishawn Redan
Some names appear repeatedly, others forever to be referred to as World Cup winners and six of them, Ethan Ampadu, Reece James, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Dujon Sterling, Kyle Scott and Trevoh Chalobah, having all been involved with the first team squad already. The link established, these players train exclusively to mesh with the playing style of the first team and here is the first core of graduates ready and waiting to fulfil their roles at the highest level next season. This half-dozen includes 17/20yr-olds, but age should not be a factor any more (the Oxford United team average age was 28yrs, Chelsea's was 18yrs) just bring them in and concentrate all financial resources set aside for transfers on world class players in the next age bracket of 21/25yr-olds. The loanees could also play their part, Tammy Abraham having already been mentioned and guaranteed to return to stake his claim alongside the likes of Charly Musonda, Kenedy and Jake Clarke-Salter. The mantra should be 'if you are good enough, you are old enough' and in this new environment no position, save that of a Hazard, a Kante or Courtois, would be safe from the threat of a young usurper like Callum Hudson-Odoi or, as has already occurred, Ethan Ampadu
Over the next few months Chelsea's priorities under Antonio Conte are the duel challenges of Barcelona in the Champions League and the need to consolidate our position in the top four of the Premier League. Failure on the first is acceptable and to a certain extent anticipated, but to end up fifth or lower in the league would signal the end for Antonio, a situation that may be more of an inevitable and acceptable way out for the Italian (who would obviously cite a falling out with the board as a major factor) than a failure on his part to shape our future after winning the title in his first season. The man may well be jockeying for position right through to the summer, and who can blame him given the club's record on managerial appointments over the last decade, but if he genuinely wants to stay, to work and work with this squad, he does have this third option. Giving a longer rein to the kids means a longer reign for Conte and the Abramovich hobby horse is there for someone, at some stage, to ride for all it is worth rather than be continually confined to the stables.
Imagine a Premier League five years from now in which the same top six clubs are fighting for the title with squads assembled at vast expense and there in amongst them is Chelsea, primarily an in-house creation constructed at half the cost, containing younger, hungrier players, all of them on long term Mino Raiola and Jorge Mendes-free contracts, the Academy pipeline fuelling the system and setting an example for the rest to follow. It could happen, it should happen... and if Antonio doesn't want to spearhead it, then Roman should bring in someone who will.