Gus Poyet is on standby. He says it himself. It’s the nature of being an international manager, periods of intense work followed by a vacuum before the next break.
The animated Uruguayan now lives in Athens and manages the Greek national team. But the former Chelsea midfielder’s mind always switches to matters over in the city he calls his “real home”: London.
His former club has been in its own version of standby this year too, with Roman Abramovich forced to hand over ownership, leaving Chelsea rudderless and with an uncertain future until Todd Boehly finally got the nod to take over.
Since then, it’s been all change at Stamford Bridge, with key players and staff leaving as Boehly puts him stamp on things.
Chief among the departures is the domineering centre half, Antonio Rüdiger. The German international has joined Real Madrid. How much of a hole his absence will make remains to be seen – although Poyet worries it’ll be pretty significant.
“It [losing Rudiger] is going to be tremendous for many reasons,” says the 54-year-old. “He swallowed everything and waited for his chance under [former boss, Frank] Lampard. Then he came back so strong under [current manager, Thomas] Tuchel and showed the world his value. And look where he’s going, he’s going to Real Madrid.
“It’s not like he’s going home and retiring; he’s going to one of the best clubs, if not the best club in the world. It means that’s the level of the player they’re going to miss. It’s an opportunity for someone else, but I don’t think you’re going to compare anyone to Rüdiger.”
The German defender isn’t the only big-name player to be going through the Stamford Bridge exit door this summer. Rüdiger has been joined on his way out of West London by £97.5m forward Romelu Lukaku, who has rejoined Inter Milan on loan after an underwhelming return to Chelsea last season.
And Poyet believes it’s an immense shame that Lukaku’s Stamford Bridge return will be recorded in the football history books as a flop.
“October and November, Chelsea lost Lukaku and Lukaku lost the chance to get back to Chelsea,” laments Poyet.
“The first two months, in my opinion, he was outstanding. He was fresh, mobile, strong, direct, making a big impact. Then he had a little injury and did the famous interview [in which Lukaku said he wanted to move back to Inter].
“From then on, it looked to me like relationships and feelings inside the club made things difficult for everyone — especially for Lukaku. It’s natural that a player has a feeling of how he finished last season with Inter, thinking ‘I’m going back there. I’m going to have that feeling again’.
“He was outstanding initially last season, absolutely fantastic, but after all the rumours and stupidity from social media, it affected everyone at the club. Even if the fans say ‘no’, Lukaku says ‘I didn’t feel any pressure’ or the manager says ‘No, I just played him when it was best for the team’, the reality is something happened because the player didn’t get back to the same level. Something didn’t work out.
“That shows the world that it doesn’t matter how good you are, there aren’t many players in any sport where you go to a new club and because you were good in the previous one, you’re going to be good in the next one. So many things influence your performance.”
Poyet is fully supportive of Tuchel and he feels the Blues have the right man at the helm. But he was disappointed by quite how far Chelsea fell, having threatened to be in the title race in the early weeks of the season.
“I thought Chelsea were playing to win the Premier League last year,” Poyet says. “After winning the Premier League and adding Lukaku, I thought they were set to challenge for the Premier League challenge. And they didn’t.
“But they were close to winning trophies and that’s where Chelsea should be: playing for trophies. I’m sure they’re trying to make the right decisions with the new people to try and win a trophy next season.”
So much of the new season is up in the air for Chelsea, following the club’s sale by Roman Abramovich after 19 years in charge. While the Russian was a man of contradictions, he brought the club stability — as well as a sustained success.
Poyet played for Chelsea under the ownership of Ken Bates and left a year before Abramovich rocked up in SW6, but the oligarch’s impact on the modern Chelsea isn’t lost on him.
“When I was there, we were a very good team; we played very good football, we were winning trophies, but something was missing,” remembers Poyet.
“José Mourinho was very important for Chelsea, but it’s mainly [a case of] before and after Abramovich. The combination with Mourinho was spectacular — absolutely key.”
Chelsea honed a real appetite for trophies under Abramovich’s ownership, says Poyet. And he hopes that will continue in the early years of the Boehly regime.
“It was going slowly in the 90s under Ken Bates,” the former Spurs man continues. “They were getting better. But then Chelsea went to another level under Abramovich. Young people in Uruguay cannot believe I played for Chelsea because they’re thinking about this Chelsea!
“They say, ‘did you? Did you?!’. That shows the reputation Chelsea has worldwide nowadays. Maybe it doesn’t have the history of some of the other top teams in Europe, but because of Abramovich, they’re at that level – and that’s great.
“I want to wish him luck”, he says about Boehly. “They need a little bit of luck. They’re going to spend money because he’s not going to come to Chelsea and not try to help the team. The problem is that the first few movements are the most difficult ones. It’s like comparing when you’re going to buy your first car. You want this one, but you want that one that’s a little bit more expensive. It’s the same with players. You finish by talking about Neymar and Ronaldo and that’s a problem because you need to think about what is better for the team — the combination of what the coach needs and what the club needs.”
Poyet spent four years at Stamford Bridge, winning one FA Cup, one Community Shield, a UEFA Super Cup and a UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup. As he peers into the future of his beloved Chelsea, he believes one concern outweighs all the others ahead of the 2022/23 season.
“If you put 10 Chelsea fans together right now and you asked them the starting XI, I don’t think you’d have two the same and that’s a problem. The best teams in the world, you know 95% of the team. I don’t think anyone knows that for Chelsea and it’s a little bit of a worry.”
With so much transition at Stamford Bridge currently, there’s one thing they’re not anymore – and that’s on standby.