Early worries for Chelsea, Conte

All is not well at Chelsea. Antonio Conte made no secret his discontent with the club’s summer transfer dealings and a lackluster performance in their Charity Shield penalty shootout defeat to Arsenal last weekend did little to quell mounting suspicion that preparations for this season’s title defense are feeling uncomfortably familiar to those of the 2015-16 season, the last time they came into a campaign as defending champions. They finished 10th that season after an awful start that saw Jose Mourinho sacked in December with the team one point above the relegation places. Parallels have been drawn between Conte’s irritated demeanor thus far and that of Mourinho in 2015.

Mourinho has played a role in Conte’s frustration this summer and the Italian may already be regretting his preseason jab at the Manchester United boss, when he said Chelsea “want to avoid the Mourinho season.” He was of course referring to that ill-fated title defense but Conte would do well to replicate Mourinho’s record as manager in his second season at clubs. The Portuguese has won the league in his second full season everywhere he’s coached and is in his second year at Manchester United.

Mourinho and United plucked Conte’s number one summer target Romelu Lukaku seemingly from under the feet of Chelsea when it looked like the Belgian was certain to make a return to West London. United’s purchase of Nemanja Matic dealt Conte a further blow- the Italian apparently had no say in the matter and described the midfielder’s sale as “a great loss.” While Matic’s performances last season often appeared unspectacular, his positional intelligence and the constant passing option he provided complimented the all-action style of the superb N’Golo Kante well. His performance in United’s convincing seasoning opening win for Manchester United highlighted the structure and stability he brings to a side that allows more attacking players to thrive further up the pitch.

Tiemoue Bakayoko, midfielder brought in from Monaco and Antonio Rudiger, defender brought in from Roma, are both fine players but will likely both take some time to adjust to a new footballing environment. I actually think Alvaro Morata is a better player than Diego Costa and expect him to perform well, particularly once Eden Hazard returns from his broken ankle. However, it remains to be seen whether Chelsea can reproduce the same dogged competitiveness in the absence of the fiery Costa. No one in the Chelsea squad immediately jumps out as a player with a mean streak that will get under the skin of opponents and motivate his teammates in the manner Costa did.

By my count Chelsea have had 30 players either sold or sent out on loan this summer, excluding Costa. In Dominic Solanke, Nathanial Chalobah and Nathan Ake they’ve sold three gifted and promising young talents to Premier League opposition. Kurt Zouma, Isaiah Brown, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Tammy Abraham are all capable squad players and yet have been sent on loan. That’s probably a good thing for the development of the players but it doesn’t help Chelsea address the fact that at present they have a thin squad that will be competing on multiple fronts.  

The unsettling summer foreshadowed Chelsea’s shock 3-0 opening day defeat to Burnley. Gary Cahill’s early red card certainly was a substantial blow but even so, the nature in which they capitulated defensively was startling, especially given Burnley’s abysmal away record last season. After Cahill was sent off Conte replaced Jeremie Boga, a surprise inclusion in the starting 11, with center back Andreas Christensen to reinforce the defense. Chistensen certainly lacks Cahill’s experience but he’s played consistently for Borussia Monchengldbach and was promising after coming on.  Even with ten men the Blues should have been able to keep things tight at the back. You’d have expected the red card and subsequent substitution to have a bigger impact at the other end of the pitch given they’d replaced a midfielder with a central defender.  Instead Chelsea conceded three in 20 minutes.

It’s difficult to overstate just how bad Burnley were on their travels last season which makes this result so troubling for Conte. They picked up just one away win last season and that was at Crystal Palace in their second to last away fixture at the end of April. Only Hull City collected fewer points and scored fewer goals on the road than Burnley’s 7 points and 13 scored. They failed to score 3 goals in any road match and scored two in just two matches.

Stephen Ward’s strike for Burnley’s second was brilliant but Sam Vokes’s two goals from crosses from the right channel were preventable with some even remotely competent defending. There was perhaps a touch of good fortune about his first but the fact the towering striker was left with so much space inside the penalty area showed a lack of organization and focus that is uncharacteristic of a Conte side.  It was certainly time to part ways with John Terry this summer but it’s worth considering how good an organizer he was and how comfortable he was defending crosses deep in his own box. It’s difficult to imagine Chelsea conceding those two had he been available to come off the bench.

It’s worth remembering Chelsea got off to a difficult start last season before a 3-0 defeat to Arsenal towards the end of September sparked the formation change to three at the back and the side went on a run of 13 games unbeaten in the league. However expectations are very different this time around. Last season the side were coming off an awful season, Conte was in his first season with the club and was therefore always going to be given patience from the fans and Roman Abramovich. The side also weren’t dealing with a fixture list congested due to Champions League participation. Conte massively overachieved but could become a victim of his own success and, perhaps more pertinently, of the clubs complacency this summer.

Chelsea didn’t even have the best squad in the league last season but they had the best manager.  They’ve failed to improve the squad over the summer while other title rivals, the two Manchester clubs specifically, have added key pieces. They’re already chasing City, United, Spurs and Arsenal after those four sides all won over the weekend. If they fail to improve the squad before transfer deadline day on August 31, it could be a long season at Stamford Bridge and perhaps a short one for Conte.