Removing Jose Mourinho from Stamford Bridge's dressing room was a club-altering decision from Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich. Far too often managerial changes are judged by their immediate aftermath, but the west Londoners have shaken the foundations of their entire setup.
For two-and-a-half years, the Portuguese was able to craft a Premier League-winning side.
Forced into selling premium talent (Juan Mata, Kevin De Bruyne, David Luiz, Romelu Lukaku, etc.) to fund moves elsewhere (Willian, Kurt Zouma, Nemanja Matic, Cesc Fabregas, Diego Costa etc.) by a rather conservative board—especially when considering Chelsea's previous transfer outlays—Mourinho fared well.
One UEFA Champions League semi-final appearance, the 2014/15 League Cup and the 2014/15 Premier League were his rewards—adding to the already-massive reputation he built during his first west London spell.
A young side, that won comfortably won a double, last year was thought to be the start of a new Blues dynasty. Instead, the empire crumbled in the space of a summer.
Like every other empire, ruination starts internally. Lack of investment, poor pre-season planning, squad depth and conflict between staff/playing members was the nucleus for Chelsea's destruction.
Few empires are ever invaded when strong; only when outsiders perceive weakness do they attack.
Starting with Swansea City on 2015/16's first matchday, Chelsea showed their burgeoning, championship-winning side had somehow altered. Stamford Bridge's fortress-like reputation was destroyed—losing to the floundering Crystal Palace, Southampton, Liverpool and Bournemouth.
Dropping 33 points from an overall 48, this strain led to Mourinho and Chelsea parting ways on December 17. Caretaker boss Steve Holland oversaw a 3-1 victory over Sunderland, then interim manager Guus Hiddink inherited what was left behind—the reigning holders in 15th position.
Since Mourinho's removal, Chelsea are unbeaten in Premier League action. Fourteen league games without defeat is impressive, but when investigating the numbers further we find a slight issue—they have dropped 16 points from a possible 39 under Hiddink. Though a 28 percent improvement, they are still 10th.
Chelsea being relegated was never a legitimate fear. Aston Villa were candidates from the opening weeks and the unwanted game of musical chairs between Sunderland, Newcastle United and Norwich City for the final two positions was evident from October.
As such, sacking Mourinho to avoid relegation would be the ultimate footballing example of cutting off one's nose to spite their face.
Speaking with Chelsea TV, technical director Michael Emenalo told the club's official television network Mourinho dismissal was, in part, the result of "palpable discord between manager and players."
Most onlookers knew 2014/15's stars were vacant. Fabregas, Costa, Matic and Eden Hazard were Chelsea's key players last season and none of them started 2015/16 with any form. Combined with Thibaut Courtois's suspension/injury woes and Branislav Ivanovic's disappearance—disappointment's table was set.
Eight trophies in five years. EIGHT!— ChelseaTalk (@ChelseaTaIk) 17 December 2015
And three poor months gets Mourinho the sack? I'm not really feeling Abramovich's managerial strategy.
Mourinho tried several combinations and formations, but nothing worked. Awkward substitution patterns and selections might not have endeared him with certain members of the squad, but their form (as a collective) pointed toward something more widespread.
A rushed pre-season, affecting fitness and sharpness, and the Portuguese's inability to cope with poor results (as he had never faced trouble in his managerial career) were the major culprits.
This all begs the question: "Where would Chelsea be with Mourinho still in charge?"
Understanding the unpredictability woven into Premier League football, the best answer is "safe."
After losing to Leicester City—in what was his last game as Chelsea boss—Mourinho was asked about his side's Champions League hopes. He told the post-match Sky Sports reporter the Blues had no chance. A brutally honest answer, it showed their conflict. They were too talented for relegation, but they couldn't reach the top four. Any place between fifth and 16th might as well be the same thing.
If a new manager reaches the top four—sack Mourinho.
If Chelsea were going to be relegated—sack Mourinho.
Any other permutation, however, and the decision becomes more confusing by the passing matchday. The closer we get to witnessing the final table and impending offseason, Chelsea are reaching the biggest summer period in the Abramovich era with enormous question marks.
Had Mourinho stayed, at least the question of manager would not require attention.
Antonio Conte, per the Guardian's Fabrizio Romano and Marcus Christenson, is favourite for the job. His duty with Italy at Euro 2016 could see his arrival delayed until mid-July—providing around one month to devote his full attention to rebuilding Chelsea in his image before the 2016/17 season starts.
Should the Blues get their next appointment wrong, or pull the trigger too quickly (which seems a hallmark), Abramovich hops right back on the managerial merry-go-round. This time without Champions League football, a world-class manager and the leadership of John Terry, Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole and Petr Cech at his disposal.
Not to mention the constraint which likely started this whole debacle: the new Stamford Bridge. The £600 million project, per the Sun's Joe Halligan, could force the Russian billionaire to borrow a page from Arsenal's playbook and curb his lavish spending habits.
If sometimes feels like Chelsea's brass are walking on a minefield, at night, blindfolded. Almost like they have no idea where they are going and any misstep has the potential to terminate what was English football's crown jewel 10 months prior.
Mourinho's presence for 2015/16 was certainly detrimental, but only when placed in context with every other malfunctioning component the Blues had; removing the manager "worked" this season, but was removing that piece worth risking the machine long term?
With Mourinho at his best, Chelsea were Premier League favourites, Champions League contenders and a premium destination for any world-class footballer; salvaging that relationship would've saved the club untold risk heading into a critical summer, which is now an uncertain future.