Inept performances on and off the pitch have led to Chelsea surrendering their Premier League title, losing in the EFL Cup and most pressingly, isolating the man who brought them success last season.
When Antonio Conte became Chelsea manager in the summer of 2016, there was a sense of optimism emanating from Stamford Bridge after what had ultimately been a disastrous season for the West London outfit.
Finishing tenth after being Premier League supremos the season previous was never going to suffice for a club that has risen to worldwide prominence since the takeover of Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich in 2004.
In his first season in English football, Conte, who won three consecutive Serie A titles in his last managerial position in club football at Juventus, guided Chelsea back to the Premier League summit and eradicate the dressing room rancour following José Mourinho’s ill-fated title defence that saw many of the Chelsea players down tools.
Chelsea, who seamlessly switched to a 3-5-2 formation following a drubbing at Arsenal early in the season, collected 39 of a possible 42 points between then and January which proved pivotal in the winning of the title.
Most importantly for Conte however, was the buy-in from the players and the togetherness of the side.
Where then, has it all gone wrong at Chelsea this season less than a year after being English football’s kingpins?
The on-pitch spark which Chelsea possessed last season seems to have evaporated while the brains behind their title success looked poised for the exit door this summer after cutting a forlorn figure on the touchline and in his press conferences for much of the season.
For a club that wishes to remain at the pinnacle, it is essential that it continues to move forward in its on and off-pitch development to ensure that the progress made does not stagnate.
Despite the success attained last season, it is clear that Chelsea have failed on both counts leading to the Italian’s frustration.
Possessing a rather thin squad last season Chelsea were able to win the Premier League due to their non-involvement in European competitions; Conte was able to rest his players.
However, this season the former Juventus man has not had that luxury due to Chelsea competing in the Champions League and drawing Barcelona in a mouth-watering last 16 clash next month.
Conte made it clear that he wished to bolster his squad for this season to allow the club to compete on all fronts and signed six players in the summer at a total cost of £185 million.
What is intriguing at Chelsea, however, is their transfer policy which sees the board of directors and owner Roman Abramovich being in charge of transfers.
This leaves the manager, Conte, to focus on coaching his players on the training ground and being seemingly powerless in any of the club’s transfer dealings.
Following the defeat to Arsenal in last night’s EFL Cup semi-final at the Emirates the Italian admitted as much:
‘‘Sometimes, I can have an impact on transfers, sometimes you can’t. My first task is to do my job and be a coach. As I said before, my task is to try to improve the team. For sure, I don’t have a big impact on the transfer market.’’
Alvaro Morata, Chelsea’s most high profile signing who arrived from Real Madrid for a fee of £58 million has struggled following a blistering start to his Blues career and is yet to score in 2018.
Tiemoue Bakayoko, who impressed at Monaco last year arrived for £40 million and has failed to make an impact while Antonio Rudiger has been an unmitigated disaster nearly every time he has started.
This raises a pertinent question about Chelsea’s summer signings and entire transfer policy; were they the players that Conte actually wanted?
Football most importantly is a results-based industry and these are what make or break a manager.
There is no doubt that Chelsea’s results have not been good enough this season and this is down to the players that are being selected not performing. In Conte’s favour, he has had some unfortunate injuries to deal with which have prevented him from playing his strongest XI on a few occasions.
Nonetheless, there remains a massive over-reliance on the Belgian superstar, Eden Hazard to sprinkle stardust on Chelsea’s performances which have been lifeless this season.
This, once again, leads back to the source of Conte’s and ultimately Chelsea’s problems; the lack of control the manager has over transfer activity.
The January window has proved to be a disaster thus far with the Blues linked with honest, but hardly prolific centre-forwards for a club of their calibre such as 37-year old Peter Crouch of Stoke and 29-year old Andy Carroll of West Ham.
Everton’s Ross Barkley was secured for £15 million but after only played his first game since May on Wednesday he cannot be relied upon to turn Chelsea’s fortunes while still trying to regain sharpness.
Chelsea are reportedly in talks with Roma duo Edin Dzeko and Ederson Palmieri.
Dzeko, 31, finished as Serie A top marksman last season and would undoubtedly add to the squad but he is not a long-term solution for a club that has a policy of only giving one-year contract extensions to players over 30.
The Brazilian, Palmieri, provides cover for Marcos Alonso at left-back.
Arsenal, who have a number of problems themselves, obtained the former Borussia Dortmund chief scout Sven Mislintat to conduct much of their transfer dealings.
The German, who has a fine track record for scouting some of Europe’s most prized young assets such as Shinji Kagawa, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Robert Lewandowski to name just a few.
Chelsea may have missed a beat in not getting an eagle-eyed scout in to work in tandem with the manager and the board to try and bolster the playing squad.
Such turbulence behind the scenes has led to Conte getting more frustrated with each passing week with Abramovich and will ultimately lead to his departure this summer.
It is hard not to feel sorry for such an innovative manager who turned the club’s fortunes last season as he cannot exert his authority over the club because of a dictatorial owner whose finger is hovering dangerously close to the self-destruct button.
If this continues, the race of the “little horse” could be run sooner rather than later.
Conor O’Shea, Pundit Arena