What has happened to Chelsea and how can they rectify it?
A Community Shield lost to Arsenal, a key player moving to a direct title rival and a shambolic opening day at home to a team predicted to struggle involving a straight red card to a key player. After Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea drew 2-2 at home to Swansea City on the 8th of August 2015 the majority of fans in Stamford Bridge will have skimmed through the script of “The Title Defence” and then thrown it in the direction of the pitch. That day also ended with Mourinho angrily challenging then physio Dr Eva Carniero’s decision to offer on field attention to Eden Hazard and so the ball of yarn that was once called: Jose Mourinho, Happy One, began to unravel.
So as Chelsea fans meandered toward Stamford Bridge at half past two on Saturday they can be forgiven for looking back at that game against Swansea two years a go with the belief that a repeat would be impossible under their new tactical master Antonio Conte. Oh well.
It took only thirteen minutes for this season’s yarn of hope to take a hit when captain Gary Cahill was sent off for a studs up yet honest challenge on Burnley’s Steven Defour. It looked a harsh decision from the referee but under the letter of the law it was the right one. Without their defence’s main organiser a well drilled and efficient Burnley took to the task of taking apart Chelsea with almost unbelievable ease. A lackadaisical and uncharacteristic Chelsea midfield and defence allowed Matthew Lowton to cross into the box for Sam Vokes to volley toward goal and Thibaut Courtois could only get a touch as the ball dribbled over the line. A short free kick not long after was slowly worked toward Stephen Ward who spanked a shot wonderfully into the far corner and Vokes added a third before half time with consummate comfort as the Chelsea defence, and David Luiz in particular, were already anticipating a mighty dressing down from Conte at half time.
The second half offered some positives apart from Cesc Fabregas receiving his marching orders for two yellow cards; the first for sarcastically applauding the referee and the second for a late sliding tackle. New signing Álvaro Morata replaced the more or less invisible Michy Batshuayi on the hour mark and bagged a goal and an assist. This at least dims the spotlight on the Diego Costa issue but there are so many worrying issues within the Chelsea squad that it should come with a health warning and safety goggles.
So what has happened to champions Chelsea? It doesn’t seem that long ago since the whole of England was purring over Conte’s team in their revolutionary 3-4-3 formation with many confident that they would defend their title much better than previously mentioned which infamously saw the team implode under Mourinho in his often ill-fated third season.
It started at the end of last season when Diego Costa leaked out a text message Antonio Conte sent to him saying he wasn’t needed. Costa never exactly warmed himself to his current coach and his tantrum in January related to a mind boggling offer from Chinese side Tianjin Quanjian which, if rumours are to be believed, would have made Coast one of the highest paid players in the world, is believed to be the moment Conte had enough but was content to wait till the end of the season with the Brazilian born Spaniard.
It’s fair to say that this text message didn’t sit well with the Chelsea hierarchy. From then transfers have been Chelsea’s major problem. Missing out to Manchester United on top transfer target Romelu Lukaku and then selling central midfielder Nemanja Matic to the same club has raised many eyebrows. Not only is it bizarre to sell one of your best central midfielders but to sell him to a title rival who has already strengthened significantly could make you scratch your head so hard your reach brain. Although Morata has been welcomed along with Antonio Rudiger, Willy Caballero and Tiemoué Bakayoko, Matic has left the club along with many other potential first teamers such as Nathan Ake, Asmir Begovic, Juan Cuadrado, Bertrand Traoré and Nathaniel Chalobah not to mention the 26 players out on loan.
Throw in Antonio Conte’s contract extension which isn’t actually a contract extension but simply a pay rise and if any Chelsea fans had been paying attention this summer then surely they would have been worried during that meander toward Stamford Bridge around two thirty last Saturday. Alas, football fans undying loyalty toward their own club is their greatest strength and weakness.
Credit must go to Burnley though who deserved their victory and have also had to deal with key players leaving with center back Michael Keane joining Everton and striker Andre Gray moving south to sign for Watford. Sean Dyche, Burnley manager, had this to say on two first teamers leaving for pastures greener:
“It’s not ideal, of course. Nobody wants to lose their best players. It’s a reality of this club and some of the challenges it faces. It’s not something I want to happen, but it happens. But it’s more about focusing on what you’re then going to do next. I’m not really one for crying at anything. I tend not to cry too much.”
This Sunday a trip to Wembley beckons as Chelsea look to right the wrongs from the Burnley game. London rivals Tottenham Hotspur await in their new temporary digs but thanks to a concoction of different factors Chelsea are more than light in the center of midfield and not even player of the year N’Golo Kante can fill that hole. This leads to Chelsea’s need for transfers and Conte has denied that his team selection against Burnley which included 20 year old Jeremie Boga making his first start for the club and a handful of youngsters on the bench was a message to the hierarchy that money needs to be spent on new faces.
When this was put to Conte he responded:
“You don’t know me very well.”
“You can see that in every friendly game I always played the best formation and I did the same today. My choice was to put out the best players that we have in this moment. I don’t like this type of idea, someone sending a message. I wanted to win today, not to send a message.”
Tottenham, in contrast to Chelsea, won their opening game away at Newcastle United 2-0 and have also been criticised in the media and by current player Danny Rose for not investing enough in the squad. Despite that they will be solid opponents and Conte knows this. Speaking about the game he said:
“For sure, this game will be really tough but we must be ready. We must be ready. We must have the same will, the same desire to fight as the second half. I think we have to restart from there.”
Along with new players coming through the door Conte and Chelsea will be counting down the days until the rest of their sidelined first team can come back too. As previously mentioned Fabregas, Bakayoko and Cahill will be missing but they will be desperate for Pedro and the talismanic Eden Hazard to return and hit the ground running. If not this year’s title defence may not be as bad as when under Mourinho but will look less and less likely to materialise.