At the Emirates on Saturday, Chelsea manager Antonio Conte was given a violent rude awakening as to the task facing him this season.
In truth, this had been coming. In their opening set of games, they needed late goals to get out of jail against West Ham and Watford, carelessly threw away two points against Swansea and were completely overrun on their own ground by a dominant Liverpool. Indeed, the only match they have looked comfortable and in control was the win against newly-promoted Burnley.
That match against Jurgen Klopp’s side should have opened Conte’s eyes somewhat, as the first time played against a team that they would consider top four rivals ended in destruction – if not in scoreline then certainly in performance.
And yet the Italian still seemed aghast at the horrendous defending on show from his side during the 3-0 reversal on Saturday – Arsenal scored three, but if they were more ruthless it could easily have been six or seven.
As good as Arsenal looked in that game, Chelsea offered no resistance and no answer. Their first shot on target did not come until the 84th minute – there’s being pegged back and then there’s just being feeble.
Conte was visibly angry in his press conference after that game, as if he was in the process of working out in his head which ‘spineless‘ (his own words apparently) player would be the first to have their head cracked off the Emirates dressing room wall (after Gary Cahill, that is).
Conte: “We are not a great team on the pitch. The pitch speaks the truth. The pitch is the most important.”
— Miguel Delaney (@MiguelDelaney) September 24, 2016
You get the sense Conte is just about controlling his anger here. He’s seething.
— Miguel Delaney (@MiguelDelaney) September 24, 2016
The major point to be inferred from Conte’s words is that this team is not as good as it thinks it is. Last season, many assumed, was just a blip, a collective meltdown by almost everyone that would be corrected as soon as proper order under a new manager was restored.
These are, with a few additions, largely the same group of players that let their club down so badly last season. The new signings will help, but don’t seem to have the transformative qualities that Conte or Chelsea need. N’Golo Kanté, the most likely of the new players to make the biggest impact, was completely overrun by the Liverpool and Arsenal midfield.
That said, that is not for lack of effort in the French international – indeed, that he is covering more ground and passing more but with less to show for it will only add to his frustration.
How N’Golo Kante’s game has changed at Chelsea since leaving Leicester pic.twitter.com/ItfZgT04PH
— 101 Great Goals (@101greatgoals) September 26, 2016
Central to Chelsea’s problems, however, is that defence. Mistakes in the Chelsea rearguard have been commonplace this this season, and the recent absence of captain John Terry has exacerbated the issue. Gary Cahill and David Luiz have both been, and there’s no other way to put this, wretched.
That the side is still so reliant on Terry – a 35-year-old that they tried to get rid of six months ago – is pathetic.
Conte wanted to bring in a new central defender the summer – hence the highly-publicised bids for Kalidou Koulibaly and Alessio Romagnoli – but to go from that to scrambling around on deadline day looking for a defender and ending up with David Luiz is quite the booby prize.
Terry’s eventual departure is the moment this could all fall apart for Chelsea and Roman Abramovich. The spine of Petr Cech, Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba was forged in 2004, under a bright idealistic manager in José Mourinho, and that template was there throughout all of their success in the following decade.
With each departure, the squad has looked a little less sure of itself, a little less intimidating. Cech’s replacement, Thibaut Courtois, has shown flashes of quality, but not enough to justify his increasingly volatile attitude and blatant desire to return to La Liga. Lampard’s replacement Cesc Fabregas isn’t even a regular starter right now, and while Diego Costa, the successor to Drogba, has had a return to form recently, he’s another who harbours dreams of returning to Spain.
Chelsea got lucky in the sense that their last spine was there for so long, and when everything was changing around them (including the managers), they remained the constant foundation in the club’s success.
However, the players that were signed to replace them could all be gone next summer, and Chelsea would find themselves in transition all over again.
So where does that leave Conte? Well, eccentric billionaires aren’t exactly known for their patience. That the former Italy boss’s job could already be under threat might sound ridiculous, but then Chelsea are a ridiculous club. Champions League and Premier League-winning managers have previously been sacked on a whim.
Abramovich is so desperate for immediate success that he rehired José Mourinho in 2013 – and while that (temporarily) worked, the blueprint for long-term success just isn’t there at Chelsea. The new manager should be given the time to rectify that, but Abramovich’s previous form suggests that this should not be expected.
It’s not as if he can buy his way out of this one either – £30m transfers have become commonplace a lot of Premier League clubs, and as a result Chelsea is no longer the draw it was even a few years ago.
Conte’s methods are apparently going down well with the playing and backroom staff at the club but that won’t be enough to satisfy the owner. Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino are reaping the rewards of their bosses’ patience at their respective clubs – neither would have been afforded that luxury at Stamford Bridge.
Abramovich demands top four at the very least, but right now Chelsea’s team is arguably behind Manchester City, Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham right now in terms of quality and cohesion. The managers there are certainly more secure.
This is the biggest period of transition that Abramovich and Chelsea have faced since his takeover in 2003 – will the owner afford Conte the time and opportunity to use his methods and turn things around, or will he get jumpy and issue a P45 as he has done so many times in the past?