Chelsea will always need players like Gary Cahill to make the club whole

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 05: Gary Cahill of Chelsea applauds the fans after the final whistle during the Premier League match between Chelsea FC and Watford FC at Stamford Bridge on May 05, 2019 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 05: Gary Cahill of Chelsea applauds the fans after the final whistle during the Premier League match between Chelsea FC and Watford FC at Stamford Bridge on May 05, 2019 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images) /

Gary Cahill formally left Chelsea FC today. He will be difficult to replace because he is not a player a team can just buy off the shelf and know what they will get.

For the first time since before Chelsea became champions of Europe, Gary Cahill is no longer a Blue. Perhaps more accurately, he is no longer under contract so will not play football as a Blue. But he likely will always identify as one, no matter where is career takes him and certainly after he retires from the game.

Players like Gary Cahill defy FIFA thinking, which is probably why they become such targets of the FIFA fanboy crowd. They are almost impossible to spot until they are fully-formed, which means they do not attract much attention in the transfer market. To whatever extent they do, it is because a scout or another player recommends them based on the intangible characteristics that do not have a FIFA rating, and are thus the province of dinosaurs and yer da’s.

For all the same reasons, functional clubs – that is, clubs who win trophies and have a spirit and character that runs through fans, first team and youth alike – always have at least one player like him in the squad.

Players like Cahill infuse surprise and optimism to a team. His detractors did him a favour by continuing to bring up his lowly provenance, years after he left Bolton. That Chelsea FC could buy a player from Bolton Wanderers, sitting in 18th place when they made the deal, and that player would go on to feature prominently in winning every domestic and European club trophy, succeed his legendary defensive partner as club captain, play in two World Cups and two European Championships, is to the enduring credit of Chelsea and Cahill alike.

Every untouted player who arrives at Chelsea under any circumstances can believe it can be done, because it was. Marcos Alonso, Cahill’s teammate at Bolton years before the Spaniard came to Chelsea, is another. Alonso does not have Cahill’s leadership abilities, but he shows what can happen at a place like Chelsea when Chelsea execute proper football.

You won’t find a player like Gary Cahill at Manchester City. There is no element of surprise or optimism because Pep Guardiola builds his teams around determinism. He demands – and clubs assent to – massive spending for the world’s best proven players. No one is surprised when they win, because how could they not. Well, the Champions League shows how.

City watched two functional clubs (see, for example: Milner, James) battle for the trophy Pep Guardiola has not come anywhere close to since he left the only functional club he has ever known, FC Barcelona.

“He needs better players!” is a useless canard. Every coach would love to have better players. But it’s self-handicapping for a coach to think that, let alone build a reputation on always having better / best players. Equally so for a club, who quickly becomes mired in high wages and transfer fees. The managers who are successful across clubs and the clubs who are successful across managers are those who bring in top quality players, but those marquee players complement the role players in the team.

Sometimes those role players stay role players. Other times those £7-8 million players from Bolton or Marseille become the absolute foundation of the team, which in turn exemplifies the identity and ambition of the club.

Coaches will never say “I need Gary Cahill as he was in January 2012.” But they will say “I need Gary Cahill, 2013-17,” or someone in that mould. And when they say it, they will not just be talking about his defensive prowess.

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The difficulty for immediate gratification clubs and coaches is that no one knew in January 2012 what would become of him over the succeeding seven years. That’s part of what made him so important. Again, that was down to Chelsea and Cahill, and redounds to them both.

Chelsea are a better club in every sense for having bought Gary Cahill in January 2012. The best thing the club and the fans can do is not write off unheralded signings from down the pyramid to fill a few gaps. Yes, there are many more Davide Zappacosta’s and Loic Remy’s than Cesar Azpilicueta’s and Gary Cahill’s. But even if you end up in the middle with a mere Marcos Alonso, that Bolton and Fiorentina cast-off, you come out ahead.

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Petr Cech and Frank Lampard know this from all sorts of personal experience, first-hand and observational. Chelsea might just be a functional club after all.