2011. 2016. 2018. Three pathetic Premier League title defences by three different Chelsea teams with three different managers using distinct approaches to squad building and tactical regimen. There is a common thread that binds the most successful English club in the last decade during these three seasons.
“For sure, it will be the most difficult season of my career,” Antonio Conte’s dire words at the beginning of the season sounded like just another call by a manager for fresh recruits by the board. Though the Italian had heralded a remarkable title-challenge with a much-maligned Chelsea side in the previous season, Conte’s ominous warnings foreshadowed a dismal future as Chelsea stuttered to a fifth-place finish in the league.
A 3-2 loss at home to Burnley on opening day tilted the odds against Chelsea right from the onset as a tumultuous battle off the pitch continued between Diego Costa and Conte. The Italian refused to acknowledge the centre-forward as part of his plans for the season, informing the latter through an ill-conceived text message. However, the club’s decision to back their manager came under the scanner, especially as Chelsea lost the race for Romelu Lukaku and had to settle for Alvaro Morata who had never been a first-choice forward at any of his previous clubs.
Chelsea’s transfer policy and the snags in them were apparent for all to see, but the board failed to rectify the mistakes from two seasons back. A lengthy pursuit of Alex Sandro without any backup and overspending by millions on the likes of Danny Drinkwater and Davide Zappacosta on deadline day left the squad bereft of quality and quantity. The loss of youngsters like Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Marco van Ginkel and Nathaniel Chalobah — some on loans, some securing permanent transfers — affected the team.
The absence of a qualified Technical Director of Football has cost the club in the recent past and lack of a clear path to the first team even after putting in meritorious loan shifts has disillusioned a section of Chelsea’s academy graduates. As Tiemou Bakayoko toiled to adapt to the rigours of the English Premier League, perhaps Conte’s greatest achievement this season came in the initial months when the prodigious Andreas Christensen and phenomenal Ethan Ampadu were integrated into the first-team squad.
Never sensational and forever conservative, Conte’s Chelsea produced a mixed bag of results all through 2017, outclassed by Manchester City at home. The London club did produce one of their finest European displays against Atletico Madrid at Wanda Metropolitano in the UEFA Champions League, but inconsistency was second nature for Chelsea. A draw at Anfield and a closely-fought win over Manchester United were interspersed with defeats at Crystal Palace and West Ham.
Chelsea’s meek submission to AS Roma in the group stages of the UEFA Champions League dealt the club a tough hand in the knockouts as they were drawn against Barcelona, the eventual La Liga champions. In spite of the Blues’ glorious history against the Catalan club, the current Chelsea side were no match for the cold, calculated, and ruthless Barcelona side. Conte’s tactical acumen afforded Chelsea a fair shot at the tie but the English club simply didn’t have enough game-changers in their ranks to turn the course of the encounter.
Having conceded the Premiership to Manchester City last December and getting knocked out of the UEFA Champions League as early as March, Chelsea produced a string of mediocre performances as Conte’s side failed to win eight of their eleven league fixtures since the turn of the year. Combined with the Italian’s mental block against Arsenal and Arsene Wenger (a club against whom Chelsea traditionally perform well) in the English League Cup, Chelsea seemed devoid of ideas and inspiration.
Culpability lay with the Chelsea board in terms of mismanagement of transfer funds on lacklustre footballers. The decision to spend heavily on the likes of Drinkwater and Zappacosta instead of finding cheaper, more technically astute alternatives to make up squad numbers was an abomination for a club with the finest youth academy in England. However, Conte’s abysmal attitude and his negative approach just to prove a point to the Chelsea hierarchy were also inexcusable. The Italian’s poor team selection week after week was complemented by an indifference to his players’ displays and ineptitude in motivating his wards.
“When the technique doesn't arrive at the best level, arrive with your heart, with head, with enthusiasm, with passion, with work,” Antonio Conte had once spoken about his unrestrained passion on the touchlines. However, this facet that had enamoured Chelsea fans and Premier League observers in 2016 went missing this past season. His fractious relationship with the board and the dressing room is likely to cost him his job at Stamford Bridge.
A late charge for a ‘top-four’ finish was not enough to qualify for next season’s UEFA Champions League as neither Tottenham Hotspur nor Liverpool crumbled under pressure in the business end, relegating Chelsea to Europa League voyage next season. This would also mean that the lack of funds and absence of Champions League football will stand in the way of attracting top talents this summer. Silverware has never been a problem at the club where stability is the quandary, for even Antonio Conte enhanced his reputation as “a serial winner” by winning the FA Cup following a mundane yet effective display against Manchester United at the Wembley on 19 May.
As the club stands at crossroads once again, the Chelsea board must quickly decide on the direction the club is willing to take, especially if they wish to tie down Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois to new contracts. The Belgians have already clarified that their decisions would depend on the club’s ambitions in the transfer market, an alarming call for a club of Chelsea’s stature.
Not only must Chelsea ameliorate their revolving managerial door with a coach of top calibre, the board must ensure the club’s aspirations line up to those of their prospective manager. Stability may not be the key to success in the Roman Abramovich-owned club, but clarity at all levels of hierarchy is essential for the Pensioners to persist among the crème de la crème of European football clubs.
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Updated Date: May 21, 2018 20:31:46 IST