Chelsea waste their chance and show again what a weird team they are

<span>Liverpool players celebrate victory and leave their Chelsea counterparts on the floor.</span><span>Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian</span>
Liverpool players celebrate victory and leave their Chelsea counterparts on the floor.Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

There was a telling, and also quite funny, moment at the start of extra time in this Carabao Cup final, a match won late on by a Liverpool team so depleted it resembled by the end one of those Friday night, club TV channel youth-team affairs, gangly kids with floppy hair veering about at some half-deserted practice ground, parents in the stand.

As the moments ticked down to the restart Liverpool’s players formed a huddle near the halfway line. At which point the Chelsea team, already in formation, seemed to realise that actually that’s the kind of thing we should be doing and abruptly shuffled in to form an even tighter, more righteous blue huddle, like a clingy new couple offering up a performative show of affection around the dinner table.

Related: Liverpool win Carabao Cup as Van Dijk’s extra-time header sinks Chelsea

It happened again in the next interval, this time even more wildly, a full staff huddle, as though one of those Derbyshire games of village bladder-ball had broken out mid-final. And in that moment it felt like a perfect miniature, an emblem of what this Chelsea FC footballing entity is, basically some men chucked together without thought or chemistry; and resembling more than ever here the most salutary lesson in waste, greed, and how not to build an elite sporting team.

There are two things worth saying about Chelsea’s 1-0 defeat by Liverpool at Wembley. First, it was by the end a genuine shocker for everyone involved. This was a game Chelsea really ought to have won, but one where they dished up instead a performance lacking in teeth or any kind of in-game influence from Mauricio Pochettino.

Indeed he could well be one game from the sack given the steady downward stumble of the season. Chelsea are still in one cup, until midweek at least, and paddling vaguely in the league, although even in defeat here they went from 10th to 11th in the table. Would any other manager do any better, charged with making this random collection of human talent look like a coherent sporting entity? Would anyone who might have a chance want the job?

Chelsea weren’t terrible here. They were just vague, weird, hard to read or understand. This is a team without a narrative. This is a random-energy machine. For very brief periods they were suddenly good, purposeful, producing zingy little passages of passing. Then just as abruptly, they fell apart, or sank back into lethargy.

But then we have never really seen a football team like this, assembled with such a mania, so deliberately and clumsily opposed to any existing notions of continuity, the human scale, ideas about how the pieces might fit together.

In fact the only really recognisable part of this Chelsea defeat was the sense of an old-fashioned bottle job, a dropping of the ball with the line in their sights. They came into this game as second favourites. But scan the team sheets at the start and Chelsea had a demonstrably more illustrious team here, man for man, albeit the word “team” must be used advisedly when referring to a collection of players with no coherent internal architecture.

But in theory everything fell Chelsea’s way here. Liverpool had at least 10 first-team players out at the start. Shall we just round that up, sir, to the full 11? With 26 minutes gone Ryan Gravenberch rolled an ankle in gruesome fashion, made all the more painful by the fact his ankle happened at the time to be under the studs of Moisés Caicedo. He left on a stretcher. Liverpool rejigged from their rejig.

Related: Pochettino hits back at Gary Neville’s Chelsea ‘billion-pound bottle jobs’ jibe

And by the midway point of the second half this billion-pound miscellany, the non-team of all the talents, was competing against a team of youth-team alumni, eager and talented fill-ins. By the time Virgil van Dijk scored the winning goal with a penalty shootout looming the people flopping on top of him were Bobby Clark, James McConnell and Jayden Danns, energetic kids out there having the time of their lives. By contrast the player Van Dijk had to outjump to score was Mykhailo Mudryk, basically a YouTube player signed as a punt, another human part thrown into this random football generator.

There was an irony in Chelsea even playing this final given their ownership model basically doesn’t really want this competition to exist, wants instead to be doing grander things with its midweeks. Win this and Chelsea would have got into the Europa Conference League. Can they even play in it? Will Uefa, with its tougher FFP rules, actually allow it?

For all that, they did play well at times. Cole Palmer had some nice moments. Conor Gallagher might have won it with some luck. The players gave everything they had and were utterly deflated at the end, Pochettino close to tears.

As ever this defeat, like all Chelsea defeats right now, is on the ownership, on the business plan, on the sheer frat-boy financier arrogance of that beat-the-market spending spree, on always believing you’re the smartest guy in the room. Chelsea had a chance to turn all that energy into something tangible here, to seize the moment. It passed because they met a more coherent sporting entity, with greater will, deeper gears. For now, this thing remains a bust.