A few weeks ago I saw many writers beginning to post their end-of-season awards for the clubs they cover on the site. I was going to do the same until I realized something: Chelsea’s season was far from over!
With the historic Champions League win over the weekend and the confetti from the parade down Kings Road all cleaned up, the 2011-12 Chelsea FC season has finally come to an end. In what was perhaps the most successful campaign in the club’s history, there was plenty of drama and excitement along the way before than big blue bus reached Eel Brook Common.
But in the end none of that mattered, as for the first time, Chelsea are champions of Europe.
This is the first article I will write in a series of retrospectives over the next week or two focusing on the past 10 months following the club. This piece is a lighthearted look at some of the very best performers for the club this season. As much as this is a team game, it would not be right to overlook the individual accomplishments by the many players who make up that team.
Here are the my individual awards for the 2011-12 Chelsea season.
Was there ever any doubt about this? It could seem kind of odd to an outsider looking in that the best striker of the season started in less than half of the season’s games, but it would also be impossible to argue otherwise.
Drogba was a legend at this club going into the season and moved himself to the level of all-time great in the sport from his performance this season. His 13 goals and four assists in all competitions is not what history is going to remember about the Ivorian. It will be how he may be the best big-time player the game has ever seen.
Nine goals in nine cup finals is the way Chelsea fans will remember the man whose vintage header against Bayern Munich tied it up late and his cool-as-ever penalty won the game. He is a classic No. 9 in an age where the hybridization of roles is becoming the common trend.
Power, grit, determination and just a hunger for goal is how he helps his side. Nothing more and nothing less.
The coming negotiations between whether he stays with the club at the end of his contract this summer or moves on was to be the most-watched thing at the Bridge this offseason. But instead of Drogba playing out a long and distracting drama, he made his final selfless act by announcing he will not be returning to the team.
It is a perfect ending to a perfect career.
It is not often that a player makes a change of roles in the middle of a season and finds success there, but the fact that Ramires did and with such ease is more of a testament to how great of a footballer he is than anything else.
Arguably the most consistent player this season, Ramires relies on speed and energy to play the game. With those qualities, he can pretty much play anywhere on the pitch, but found the right wing his best option.
Roberto Di Matteo originally moved him out wide to provide some support to that flank that was repeatedly getting torched by the opposition. Ramires may not be the best defender in the world, but he gets back and covers well. But a byproduct of that gave Ramires space to use his speed and get down the line in a threatening way.
When the season was on the brink in the final weeks, Chelsea’s park-the-bus tactic worked only because of the pace Ramires brought. Opposing full-backs got sucked in as they retained possession and Ramires had clear lanes to create chances on goal.
The two most notable came against Barcelona, when he was free to cross to Drogba in the first leg and scored his own in the second. Both times, it was him simply getting up ahead of full-back and making the right decision with the last touch.
But perhaps there was no moment where you realized how important he was when he was not playing in the final. Chelsea could not get the counter going the way they wanted without that speed out wide. Too many times Drogba found himself up top with no help and it led to a very shaky attack by the Blues.
Most pundits would say Ramires is not a very good winger, as he does not possess the best technical skills. But these are probably the same people who see Chelsea’s triumphs as just two months worth of “good luck.”
On this team, there has been no better winger than Ramires.
When Juan Mata was purchased from Valencia this past summer, Chelsea fans were unanimously delighted. I think it is safe to say that we all foresaw Mata leading this club to bigger and better things.
Don’t you love being right?
Mata was beyond exceptional in his first year in the English Premier League. Statistically, he was as good as anyone, including fellow Spaniard David Silva, who many claim was the best Spaniard in the league, despite Mata netting four more goals (12) and one more assist (20) in all competitions.
But it had a lot more to do with the presence he brought to the team than just the numbers he posted. Mata was brought in for the unmistakable reason of giving some creativity to this historically direct side. His runs through the midfield and ability to expose passing lanes opened up the rest of the field for the players to do their thing.
Despite him being absent in the final three Champions League games, he accepted the fact that he would not contribute much in the game plan. Even then, he went out there and ran his heart out, trying to help where he could defensively and creating something when on the ball.
That alone solidified him in the hearts of Chelsea fans, as they more than appreciated the incredible effort. It is much too early to call him a legend at this club, but I think it is safe to say that he is on the right track.
I still remember waking up in June to the news that Michael Essien had again torn his ACL and would be out until January at the earliest. Even then it was bold to think he would be back to that old never-stop-going player who was as good on the back line as he was in the box.
There was a gaping hole to be filled in Chelsea’s center, where defenses where killing the Blues. Oriol Romeu did well, but still lacked the experience to do it week in and week out. And at the time, John Obi Mikel was the worst fit for the Andre Villas-Boas system.
But after the managerial change, Mikel suddenly sprung to life and turned out be one of the best defensive midfielders in the league. No longer having to push forward or be a distributor of the ball, he was comfortable sitting in front of the defense, cutting down passing lanes and bumping midfielders off the ball.
He really became a standout in both legs against Barcelona, where he was beyond exceptional and arguably the most important player on the team. He shielded the back line and was charged with more than once having to pick up Messi when he dropped back. He was patient and responsible in his positioning and never let him have an easy lane to the goal.
Mikel was easily the most underappreciated player this season, not for any other reason than what he does doesn’t show up in any box score or stat line. But what he does do is make the Chelsea defense one of the best in the world.
This is by far the most difficult one for me to pick. It is picking between two Chelsea legends, Ashley Cole and John Terry, and splitting hairs more than anything.
They were both immense all season and arguably faced more struggles with the offseason changes than anyone. They had moments of brilliance, ones where you can say they quite literally saved the season and others of utter stupidity where it could have cost them dearly.
But that is often the double-edged sword you get with greatness.
For me, Cole barely nudges out Terry simply for the one boneheaded knee to the back that Terry decided to give Alexis Sanchez. That set up one of the most incredible performances in Blues history and also made Cole the only senior member on the back line in the final.
In that capacity, he was more than outstanding against former teammate Arjen Robben, a player that Cole knew he would need to shut down. For nearly 120 minutes, Robben did little on Cole and was forced to cut into a cluttered middle of the pitch, keeping him mostly quiet.
Other than that, at age 31, Cole played his fourth straight season with 40-plus appearances and has never lost a step. Realizing that he may not be able to keep pace with some of the young wingers, he has adapted his game to be more positional and throughout the season, he proved his worth time and time again.
It is odd to think of a Chelsea squad without Cole in it, though he is hardly an original. But this season just confirmed that he is still one of the best left-backs in the game today.
A few games into the season, I think it is safe to say that much of the Chelsea fanbase had look of “here we go again,” as David Luiz seemed to be the same unpredictable defender who had cost Chelsea far too many games last season. Yes, we all love his impressive runs through the heart of midfields, but he is a defender first and as long as that play is shaky, he will always be a liability.
Yet somewhere over the season, Luiz realized this and transformed his play into a stalwart and dependable center-back. Try and think of the last time he made one of those runs to join the attack; it was months ago.
Now try to think about the last time he made a mistake on defense that cost a goal; again, months ago.
Luiz stepped up huge at the end of the season with near-perfect games heading down the stretch and solidifying the back line. He and Terry were as good as any center-back pairing in the game and when Terry was out due to suspension, he and Gary Cahill were excellent against Bayern.
This is the player that Chelsea fans have been waiting to see and the one that will give us confidence for the future. Luiz has finally turned the corner to be a reliable defender and there is no going back. He could really become a world-class back some day and very soon.
This is probably the more subjective award there would be, because it depends much on what expectations you had for players going into the season. I know I personally thought Daniel Sturridge would be a good role player, but never to put up the kind of numbers he did.
No one else got off to such an impressive start as Sturridge, as his four goals in the first six games instantly put him on the map. The fact that he was able to only muster 12 on the season has more to do with the varying capacities he was asked to play than an actual drop off in performance.
Let’s not forget, this was a pure striker who was asked to go out wide all season on the wing.
That right there turned out to be his downfall, as fans often criticized him for not being the kind of role player that was needed. Too often he would simply make the wrong decision, shooting when he should have passed and not being able to link up with the center forward.
But overall we cannot deny what he did bring to this team: a bit of pace and guile down the flanks. It may have not always resulted in goals, but it certainly kept the defense honest and proved he had a knack for finding them himself.
If Chelsea ever decide to go to a two-striker set, he would be a much better complement and it would come as no surprise if he were to be the top scorer on the team and maybe even the league.
The one thing about Chelsea that makes them so easy to love is the many affable personalities that they have. As disjointed the locker room was at the beginning of the season, once the issue was removed, you saw the disposition quickly shift and the fun reenter.
But I don’t think anyone had as much fan support behind them from beginning to end as Fernando Torres.
Torres’ struggles have been well documented and covered. I myself have made plenty of suggestions that he take a seat on the bench until he proves his worth. But like the many millions of fans around the world, there was no one player we wished to perform than the forward.
It seems like every time he got on the pitch, it united the fanbase in hoping that this would be the moment where he would score that goal to set him on fire or make the assist to win a huge game. It seemed like it may have happened when he scored against Manchester United earlier in the season, but there would be not turning point there.
However, all the support eventually began to show, as Torres showed more and more of his former self. Suddenly, he was finding the net here and there and racking up assists in his sleep.
The confidence looks finally restored and the fan support is as much the reason as any.
He may not have started more than 15 games this season and most of those were because Ashley Cole needed a break now and then, but when he did start, he was as solid as the first-choice full-back himself.
Since 2006, when Cole arrived at the club, one of the few positions where there was never a doubt about the starter was at left-back. But at age 31 and playing well over 500 games in his career, the club must begin to look for a viable replacement.
This season, Ryan Bertrand proved that he is more than capable of becoming that player. He is a reliable and consistent full-back who does not make the questionable decisions you would expect out of a 22-year-old. He may not quite have the pace going forward, but when he does he rarely risks getting beat on the back end.
The fact that he started the Champions League final (out of position, mind you) ahead of Torres, Florent Malouda and Daniel Sturridge is really telling of how much faith and trust they have in his abilities. He did not provide much in the attack that game, but he did help keep Arjen Robben quiet while he was on the pitch, the main reason he was put there to begin with.
Should Cole go down to injury or face suspension in a big game, the fans will rest easy knowing that this young Chelsea product will be there to fill in and one day be the number one.
The way I equate the idea of the “most valuable player” is if you were to remove that player from the team, they would be losing the most. In that sense, Petr Cech has been the MVP for Chelsea since he arrived in 2004, but he solidified it with some of the most impressive performances any keeper has ever had.
A lot of critics have come down hard on Chelsea for their “anti-football” approach to tough games and rendered their biggest victories as nothing more than luck falling on their side. These people are morons, but if you need to explain why they are, all you need to do is just show them that that style of play was the game plan all along.
And the game plan only works with Cech in net.
I don’t think Di Matteo thought Cech would be facing 90-plus shots over his final three games, but he also would not be unnerved by the idea either. Chelsea was comfortable allowing the opposition to retain possession because they knew that anything less than perfection would be easily handled by their keeper.
There are few, if any other teams that can make this claim.
Cech did not get off to the best start of the season, but he, like most of the players, was struggling to adapt to the implementation of a new system. However, once he made himself comfortable, he reverted back to being arguably the best keeper in the world and probably made the most important plays for the Blues all season.
Chelsea could go out and get Manuel Neuer and Iker Casillas, but neither would be better than Cech. Not necessarily in terms of their abilities, but rather how much confidence he instills in the team.
It is the trust factor that makes Cech the most valuable player on the team and allows the other 10 guys to play their game.
The award for Player of the Year holds a bit more than all the others. It should be given to the one player who mattered most to the team, not just in the numbers they put up, but the leadership they displayed and impact they had on a game.
There is only one player who can claim to have met all of these to a high level: Frank Lampard.
It was a rough season for the vice-captain, as not more than half a year ago, he was embroiled in some nasty rumors surrounding his attitude toward Andre Villas-Boas. Many took his being upset at not playing as a sign of egoism, when in fact it was actually just a veteran player watching his team fall and not being allowed to help out.
However, it is how he handled that turbulence that only adds to this award. After the sacking of Villas-Boas, he quickly reverted back to one of the top midfielders in the league, making those killer passes through midfields and crosses in attack.
But when it became quite obvious that Chelsea was not going to outshoot teams and the game plan became defense, it was Lampard who accepted a new role, lying deep behind the front four. He was no longer a playmaker and had become a distributor, something that he was just as excellent at.
When asked to play defense, he did so with all his heart. When asked to score penalties, he made it look as easy as ever. And when asked to lead his team to the biggest win in the club’s history, he stepped up as the lone veteran in the middle of the pitch.
It was a wild season to say the least, but few Chelsea fans will be upset with how it ended. The first Champions League title for the English capital coming from the team with the least amount of success and in their worse season in a decade? This kind of stuff can't be written.
But to pull it off, you really need a special group of players. Not just ones that possess supreme talent, but that fit in perfectly with one another, understanding both where they are their best and ceding to their limitations.
This is not the most talented group of players to ever wear the Chelsea blue, but it certainly is the one of the best teams.
So who would you give these individual awards to? Are my picks spot on or am I missing something? There is of course room for debate as all of this is only my opinion, so please let me know what you think.
Stay tuned tomorrow when I release my picks for "Team Rewards."
For all my articles, follow me on Twitter: @thecriterionman