Premier League: Chelsea 'looking too soft', as Antonio Conte struggles to impose his identity
It's still early days, but signs are that Chelsea is, by Antonio Conte's own admission, lacking in intensity
It couldn't have been a more contrasting summer for Antonio Conte. At Euro 2016, after nearly two years as Italy manager, the onus was on familiarity — starting with the plug-and-play defensive line he used so successfully at Juventus. Almost on autopilot, moves would be constructed from the back, and in one memorable game against Spain, the opponents were defeated tactically even before the ball was kicked.
As Conte himself observed, that bunch defied and went beyond what we have come to expect from an international side. It was more than a group that just convened one week before the qualifiers, adjusting to each other's company, before drifting back into their day jobs at club level. The core personnel of Conte's Italy knew each other well, partly from playing together week in week out, apart from having played under the same manager in the past. By all means, it is an anomaly in today's game.
Fast forward three months: Conte's Chelsea is still finding its feet, looking for an identity under a new manager. Since joining in July, Conte has had what can safely be described as an ordinary transfer window by their exacting standards, failing in particular in his pursuit of an Italian central defender, before opting for an old hand in David Luiz on deadline day.
It reflects both on the dearth of quality ball-playing centre-backs, and the continuing trend of managers preferring to bring their own men along to address clubs' need for instant success. Leonardo Bonucci and Alessio Romagnoli were among the names thrown around, and eventually, neither of those materialised.
It's still early days, but signs are that Chelsea is, by Conte's own admission, "lacking in intensity". Over the years, he has proved time and again that his aggression and spirit are infectious, spurring his players on with the bulldog attitude required for continued success. So far, however, this storied intensity has been visible only in all too brief spurts and among a few players only — most notably Diego Costa, who fits the description of the ideal Conte player prototype.
N'Golo Kante, a new signing, seems to have carried his last season's form forward, and has been involved in winning back the ball tirelessly and fueling potent moves from the midfield. The rest of the squad, particularly the defensive engine that so adeptly kickstarts swift counterattacking moves for his sides, has been exposed way too often.
Asked what he learnt from Friday's defeat to Liverpool, he shrugged before doling out a generic "not over until the fat lady sings" answer.
The truth is that Chelsea's defence has now been exposed in identical fashion three times in a row. Bird's eye views of the pitch show its defensive staff crowded together like a herd of tightly knit wildebeest, fully believing in the power of the collective against sprinting predators on the prowl, who were only too happy to stay away, before landing the knockout punch past a hapless 'keeper left in solitude by some atrocious marking.
From Etienne Capoue to Dejan Lovren, opponents have closed out training ground moves with only the keeper to beat, too happy to close out opportunities they could barely believe had come their way. At this point, it is worth clarifying that fortune has not entirely been on Chelsea's side, starting with Leroy Fer's foul on Gary Cahill that led to Swansea going on the ascendancy, before Jordan Henderson's screamer that few keepers had a chance to save.
The bottom line, all aspects considered, is that the defence has exposed large pockets of space they should have comfortably closed down, with an inexplicable knack to miss marking men who were prime targets for aerial balls. To use a sporting cliche, they have often looked too "soft", and as Brian Clough memorably said, this side needs more "bastards", eager to hustle opponents and happy to be universally hated.
Cesc Fabregas is a case in point, with his copious creative abilities ignored in favor of the defensively minded Matic and the industriousness of Oscar. The Spaniard has played a grand total of 35 minutes, coming off the bench three times so far. Conte has had good things to say about his training intensity, but it does not take a psychiatrist to read through the euphemisms to figure out why there is a distinct reluctance about giving him starts yet.
The side needs organisers and leaders who would give no quarter, a trait that is in short supply for now. The silver lining, though, is that the returning David Luiz has started off well, with John Terry and Kurt Zouma also set to return from injuries. As the manager himself said, these reinforcements would feel the danger better, and "pay attention, every moment, every second".
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