Antonio Conte’s Chelsea reign started in fine style, with four wins from four in August. But a fierce start with plenty of fight and late goals quickly went south, with a chaotic Transfer Deadline Day preceding a tepid September which consisted of big losses to Liverpool and Arsenal.
The internal inquest is clearly underway, with Conte insisting after the Arsenal loss that “we must work a lot because we are a great team only on paper… we must reflect a lot to find very soon the right way.”
But what exactly are his problems? The Chelsea Chronicle analyses five key frailties for the current Chelsea side.
1) Half-hearted, uncommitted goalkeeper
Thibaut Courtois signed for Chelsea as a 19-year-old and was billed as the natural successor to Petr Cech. His reputation, and undoubtedly ego, was inflated with three hugely successful seasons on loan at Atletico Madrid.
But, since his return to Chelsea at the start of 2014, he has lacked the consistency he showed when in Spain, and with that caused immense frustration amongst the Chelsea faithful, particularly poignant because he dislodged Chelsea legend Petr Cech.
Last season, Courtois could only keep five clean sheets in 23 appearances, picking up two red cards along the way. The poor form was put down to a feud with goalkeeping coach Christophe Lollichon, and whilst Courtois won that political battle (as he did the political battle in ousting Cech), he has done little to justify his first-team spot.
The poor form has carried through to this season with Conte clearly unimpressed: “The situation now is that every game we concede two goals at minimum… It’s important to solve the situation.”
The 24-year-old has rarely looked convincing from set-pieces nor one-on-ones, two key attributes of a goalkeeper, but frustratingly his lack of command was for all to see in yesterday’s match against Arsenal, with Cahill livid he did not come out to clear a ball. Cech, as a Chelsea vice-captain too, had more authority and loyalty.
2) Aging defence
Whilst commitment to Chelsea is questionable for Courtois, commitment (or lack of) is definitely not something to pinpoint on Gary Cahill, John Terry or Branislav Ivanovic. The Chelsea trio, who have spent a combined 30 years at SW6, do genuinely care when putting on the shirt, but they appear to also be genuinely deep in decline too.
The same criticisms levelled on Courtois should equally be shared across the defence, a defence that conceded a staggering 53 goals in the league last season, and the same defence the Chelsea board decided to stick with this season.
Transfer Deadline Day was a chaotic mess to try to shore up the defence, and after a summer linked with the likes of John Stones and Marquinhos, the best the Board could muster up was David Luiz and Marcos Alonso. Still, it was no Papy Djilobodji.
The surprising element is Conte’s famed methods to instil a very disciplined defence, a trademark of his across his Juventus and Italy days, has to date not worked. But, with Mourinho, Hiddink and now Conte all failing to work on the defence, it is clearly apparent that whichever manager or system, the players are simply not there.
3) The midfield lacks an identity and are far too slow
The Chelsea midfield of yesteryear consisted of big-name players who were ready for the big stage: Frank Lampard, Michael Ballack, Claude Makelele and Michael Essien to name a few. The former two could always nick you a goal in the most scrappy of circumstances, the latter two could always save you from conceding a goal in the most scrappy of circumstances.
Who are the players today? A 4-2-3-1 system, the Chelsea system for the past few years, has meant playing two deep-lying midfielders whose one and only job is to protect the creaky back-four. These tend to be Matic and Kante, and with the insurance of essentially a back six, it should in theory allow the central attacking midfielder, typically Oscar, to float and be creative.
Except for the fact that ‘the Chelsea way’ insists that the attacking midfielder needs to defend when Chelsea do not have the ball (which they never do). It stifles the point of having an attacking midfielder, and further isolates Costa. Oscar has spent his time more often than not as a third defensive midfielder, unable to trust the likes of Matic, who often can be found aimlessly wandering further forward.
This leaves Chelsea too routine in just playing one way — the counter-attack — with the Blues having no style of play themselves, meaning any opponent has an easy job of playing against them.
Furthermore, when Chelsea do have the ball, there is no injection of pace from the midfield. Time and again Matic or Mikel will be passing sideways, unable to free up the wingers. The likes of Ballack and Lampard had more of a footballing brain to instantly hoof the ball up or to pick out a killer pass. The Chelsea midfield today neither sets up the attack nor protect the defence very effectively. What is their purpose exactly?
4) Wingers are far too predictable
Eden Hazard is a sheer delight to watch when he is charging in on the opponent’s goal and weaving in and out of defenders.
But you always know what he is going to do: cut inside to his favoured right foot and unleash a shot. You always know what Willian is going to do: go wide and shoot from a narrow angle. It comes from the fact both are right-footed and hungry for goals.
The lack of inventiveness might be what is costing Chelsea, and stems from the point of identity. The role of the winger previously would have been to beat his full-back and, on his favoured left or right foot, whip in a ball for the striker to head in. This happened time and again with the likes of Malouda, Duff or Kalou for Drogba.
Not any more. With an ever-increasing world audience, it is your own scoring chances which come first. The selfless winger who does the hard work and leaves it on a plate for the towering centre forward to tuck in is no more. And because of that, Chelsea are far too predictable.
5) Striker is too unpredictable
Where the wingers may be predictable, Costa is most definitely predictably unpredictable. The Spaniard has blown hot and cold (more the latter) since his arrival at Stamford Bridge, and the sheer inconsistency means Chelsea will find it hard to score goals.
It is not all Costa’s fault: he holds the ball up well but often to no avail as no-one would be following up. His passion is also there — but it is the wrong sort of passion.
The 27-year-old was likened as the next Drogba, leading Chelsea’s front-line in inspirational style and fighting for every cause. Whilst it is true Costa looks a warrior, it is clear his energies are entirely devoted to winding up the opponents as opposed to focusing on his team, and it is this subtle difference that makes a huge difference. You will never see him come deep to start an attack if Chelsea struggle to get out of their own half, a la Drogba. Positionally he is more often than not found on the wing than in the penalty area. And he does not have the set-piece finesse as Drogba does, either heading it in from others or taking his own free-kicks.
Costa is very much his own man therefore, but if he is to be written in the Chelsea record books he must adapt his qualities accordingly.
Outlook for the future?
Whilst these are not criticisms levelled at Antonio Conte, it is clear he has a huge job on his hands. Ever since Andre Villas-Boas’ appointment, the task of the manager has been to re-build the squad from the glory days of Cech, Cole, Terry, Lampard and Drogba. Every manager’s reign has been curtailed to stop a full transformation, and it is difficult to see why no real change has come from the Board who must surely see what the fans see.
Conte might be given this chance, however unlikely if results continue to go pear-shaped. If the Italian manages to switch to a 3-5-2 formation, it will give Courtois three centre-backs as cover, who in turn will be supported by two more youthful wing-backs. One less midfielder means one less of an unclear role. One more striker gives the defenders more to think about than just winding up Costa.
Change is definitely necessary and Conte needs to be bold to implement it. Whisper it quietly, but maybe some youth could be promoted Abramovich?