Arsenal versus Chelsea has been a battle between beauty and the beast over the past decade, where the ruggedness of the beast has prevailed over the art of the beauty. Arsenal's pretty artisans have been found hapless, clueless and redundant against the pragmatism of Chelsea in the past; so much so that even in 2015-16 — the worst Premier League season in Chelsea's history — Arsenal found their London rivals too hard to conquer.
However, it all seems like a thing of the past now. On Saturday, with Arsenal at its fluid best, Chelsea was completely outclassed. Deft touches, flicks, clever turns and intricate passing moves: Arsenal got its entire arsenal out on the field and Chelsea struggled even to chase shadows. It was a signature performance from the Gunners, a rarity especially against Chelsea over the last decade.
From Premier League champion to the its worst ever defenders, Chelsea's fall from grace has been alarming. Since the start of the 2015-16 campaign, Chelsea has conceded 62 goals in the Premier League, a tally that is more than the total number of goals conceded in the two previous campaigns. The west Londoners have now been in crisis for over a year, and defeat to Arsenal on Saturday has just proven this beyond doubt.
"We are a great team only on paper," Chelsea manager Antonio Conte said after the defeat, sending out a loud message to those who are still surprised to see Chelsea lose a football match.
Back in December 2015, shortly after Chelsea sacked Jose Mourinho after a shocking start to the Premier League title defence, the club's technical director had said they were looking for a manager who would get the best of out their "talented squad".
Emenalo's statement made it clear who the club blamed for a dismal start to the 2015/16 Premier League campaign. There was no doubt that the Portuguese manager had faltered in various aspects, and had hardly helped in addressing Chelsea's slump, but its failings over the past year aren't just down to one man; it was a collective failure, where everyone from the board, the club officials and the manager and players, failed to deliver.
But, as the trend goes at Chelsea, it's the manager who loses his job. Owner Roman Abramovich has received plenty of stick for his lack of patience with managers since taking over, but a glance at Chelsea's achievements over the past decade may provide little indication that Abramovich must mend his ways.
Three Premier League titles, a Champions League, four FA Cups and three League Cup titles is something to envy, as Chelsea's conquerors on Saturday would tell you. The Blues have achieved all this success with a constant managerial rotating door.
In fact, whenever Roman Abramovich has pulled the trigger on a manager mid-season, Chelsea have almost always ended up with silverware. The FA Cup win in 2009, the Champions League triumph in 2012, and the Europa League success in 2013 were all campaigns where Chelsea ended with a manager they didn't start the season with.
Every success is built on stability, however, and if not at the managerial level, Chelsea enjoyed a different form of stability. The squad had a strong spine, possessing the likes of John Terry, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba, Petr Cech and Ashley Cole, who formed Chelsea's spine for over a decade.
Managers came and went, but this set of players stayed together for a long time. They received excellent support from the likes of Michael Essien, Michael Ballack, Paulo Ferreira, Nicolas Anelka, Florent Malouda etc over the years.
So, whenever a mini-crisis hit the club, these players ensured there was no deficiency in the squad in terms of quality. A strong and united group of players that always seemed to have its way, even when the manager who didn't suit their ways was removed. These key players had owner Roman Abramovich's ear, and a manager's demise could be escalated accordingly.
Usually, football managers decide which players to keep, but at Chelsea, the player power has always undermined the manager. In addition, Abramovich's constant interference in managerial activities has hardly helped.
Carlo Ancelotti recently revealed in an interview to FourFourTwo how the Russian's visit to the dressing room after a 2-1 defeat at Manchester United in 2011 left him feeling a bit embarrassed. He also recalled his displeasure at the sacking of his assistant manager Ray Wilkins in the same season without him being informed about it.
However, things changed when Mourinho returned to Chelsea for a second tenure in 2014. Abramovich gave Mourinho a free hand with transfers and also gave him time to shape the squad the way he wanted. Mourinho sold then back-to-back Chelsea player of the year Juan Mata and several players like Kevin de Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku. The Russian also waited longer than usual to sack Mourinho, persisting with him despite a dismal start to its title defence, pulling the trigger only when the truly unthinkable possibility of relegation started to loom.
Guus Hiddink, one of Abramovic's most successful mid-season managerial recruits was brought back, but even the Dutchman couldn't repeat the heroics of his previous cameo. The reason was simple. Chelsea's squad, that had only managed 15 points from 16 games when Hiddink arrived, was simply not good enough. Their struggles prior to that wasn't just about the players falling out with Mourinho, but also a serious lack of quality in the squad.
The fact that the very same squad won the Premier League in its previous campaign made it difficult to digest. But a closer examination shows Chelsea had an excellent start that year, before limping past the finish line.
Chelsea's troubles have continued into the new season under Antonio Conte as well, with the club enduring yet another transfer window to forget. The Blues missed out of their prime targets and had to settle for what was available on deadline day, which hasn't really helped their cause a great deal.
However, if an Express report is to be believed, Abramovich called for an emergency meeting with Conte and the Chelsea board after he was displeased with his side's performance in the 2-1 defeat to Liverpool. The meeting, which was held on the same day, lasted until the early hours of the next day and it is sure to put some pressure on the Italian manager.
Most of the nine goals that Chelsea have conceded this season, have been down to individual defensive errors with the Gary Cahill's high-profile mistake for the first Arsenal goal on Saturday being a prime example of Chelsea's shortcomings.
However, unlike last season, Chelsea has had better control of its matches and it's individual errors that have let them down on most occasions. Chelsea was third in terms of average shots on target this season after five games with a tally of 6.2 per game. Surprisingly, however, Chelsea allowed an average of just 2.40 shots on their goal, a tally which was only bettered by Everton and was slightly better than Pep Guardiola's high-flying Manchester City (2.6 per game). After the Arsenal game, this figure rose to 2.83, still better than most of the other teams in the league.
Also, had it not been for Cahill's error, the game could have been a lot different. Last season, the average shots on target conceded by Chelsea was almost double (4.71). This shows Conte's Chelsea has controlled games much better compared to last season.
The Italian's decision to play N'Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic together in midfield to provide defensive cover at the cost of creativity has been key, and it worked well and gave Chelsea a solid start to the season, but defensive mistakes have made his safety first approach look silly.
Perhaps under a bit of pressure, Conte started with Cesc Fabregas against Arsenal, but it had no positive impact. The Spaniard could barely string any passes together and had to be substituted on the hour mark.
Looking at his past record and his short stint as Chelsea manager, the Italian hasn't done a great deal wrong. The squad needs reinforcements, and some of its players have become too error-prone, their confidence levels hurting up to a point of no return. The likes of Branislav Ivanovic and Cahill are a shadow of their past, and with over a year in doldrums, have little or no hope of resurgence.
Conte's management style and persona brings in a breath of fresh air and it's important for Chelsea and Abramovich to not just back him but empower him. The players have had a history of showing their muscle at Chelsea, but gone are those days when they can carry the club forward beyond a manager. The likes of Lampard, Drogba, Cole and Cech are gone and Chelsea badly need a new spine.
So it's time for Abramovich to make an exception and side with his manager over the players. These are delicate times for Chelsea Football Club and Abramovich's decisions will decide the club's future. Key players like Diego Costa and Thibaut Courtois have already voiced their desires to leave the club, before deciding to stay put, but it won't be long before these desires to quit resurface again, if things don't improve.
Another season out of the Champions League could spell trouble, but managerial uncertainty coupled with a bunch of sulking players could lead to a bigger disaster and could perhaps send Chelsea down a downward spiral. So it's important Abramovich breaks the trend and stands behind Antonio Conte or watch this crisis turn into catastrophe.
First Published On : Sep 25, 2016 18:09 IST