First it was a glorified friendly, then the real season opener. In two early season defeats, an abysmal 180 minutes, Chelsea were their own antithesis: disjointed and shapeless, flailing at swarming opponents. Against Arsenal, Chelsea were scarcely contenders. Against Burnley, they imploded early on after Gary Cahill’s sending off that was symptomatic for the club’s summer woes.
Last season every Chelsea player had been a part of Antonio Conte’s moulded unit, a regenerated collective with a palpable identity and pronounced character, with shape and purpose. Chelsea’s strength was built around their 3-4-3 [or 3-4-2-1] formation. N'Golo Kanté offered resolve and steeliness in the midfield, alongside Nemanja Matic. On the outside channels the wings backs bombed on. That harmony allowed Chelsea’s creative players to excel.
Eden Hazard, the inconsistent, pint-sized Belgian magician, was the Blues’ main creative outlet. With his twinkling feet and nimble spurts, he tormented opposing defenses. His link-up play with Marcos Alonso was often clever. The Belgian didn’t have to contemplate European midweek matches either, keeping his fitness levels at a peak.
Without him the reigning champions are weakened - and the stars no longer seem aligned at Chelsea. This has been a Stamford Bridge summer of simmering discontent and even stagnation, so palpable in their sluggish and sloppy early season performances. Their Italian coach is at the heart of the malaise.
It’s perhaps a great paradox for Conte, the much heralded tactician, who, as an interloper, won the championship just months ago: the league’s best coach is in grave peril even before the new season has gotten underway in earnest. Conte was lauded for his vision, persistence and man-management, but today his position in West London is precarious.
The Italian isn’t yet at the desperation levels of Jose Mourinho, who swayed at everyone as his great reign of crushing fan love and silverware collapsed and disintegrated. It all became a distressing pantomime, billed ‘Mou vs The World’, featuring an antagonistic, slightly demented Portuguese coach who pilloried his army of enemies, including his own team doctor and players. A seven-minute-on-screen-rant was the desperate chronicle of his demise.
Will history repeat itself at Chelsea? Two years ago Chelsea also lost against Arsenal in the Community Shield and that defeat signaled Mourinho’s rapid decline. Conte is however different from Mourinho. He doesn’t have that vain magnetism of a rockstar. The Italian is a neurotic, but without the Portuguese’s swagger and touch for melodrama. Perhaps Conte isn’t loved in West London, at least not up in the boardroom, and that’s where it ultimately matters most for a coach. Mourinho always influenced those operating in the corridors of power.
Conte has taken umbrage at the Russian hierarchy in the club. Chairman Roman Abramovich and key executive Marina Granovskaia haven’t assuaged his concerns and the Italian coach has a point: how can he defend the English title and compete at the same time in Europe without strengthening his squad? Conte may have incessant demands, but his fury is justified. Alvaro Morata and Tiémoué Bakayoko don’t bolster his squad, but are simply replacements for Diego Costa and Matic.
The curious case of Costa - and not the trickle of transfers - best highlights the stasis at the champions. His imposed exile and his ever-lasting dance with a buying club, presumably his old favorite Atletico Madrid, have paralyzed Chelsea. With a clumsy text message, Conte mismanaged the departure of the striker, who is using his street smart approach not to oppose defenders, but to pester his own club. Diego is Diego-ing his way out and Chelsea are taking the hits. At the age of 28, Costa could still have been an asset for Conte.
At the back, Antonio Rüdiger, who arrived AS Roma, is perhaps not an upgrade for the Chelsea defense. Nathan Ake, 22, could have filled that position, but, as so many homegrown talents and young prodigies at Chelsea, his future in the senior team was always in doubt. At the end of last season, he was one of 38 Chelsea players on loan. Now, he has left for Bournemouth. Conte nor Chelsea can ever be accused of planning for the long term.
As at the majority of Premier League clubs, Chelsea don’t tolerate defeat. Losing isn’t an option. Conte needs a magic syringe that will inject some hardiness and life into a seesaw Chelsea, a club at the confluence of many debilitating factors - or else, he risks a summer of disillusion and disintegration.
Updated Date: Aug 20, 2017 12:09 PM