Chelsea haven’t had a poor season by any means, but it is no secret The Blues have lacked consistency in their fight to defend their Premier League title. They have had promising spells with some eight-match unbeaten runs, but the knack of not building on a good run of results has been their undoing.
A first lengthy run was ended with back-to-back defeats to Manchester City (1-0) and Crystal Palace (2-1), and history repeated itself this past week with Chelsea suffering a shock loss at home to Bournemouth (3-0) and then defeat on the road at Watford (4-1).
Recent form has piled the pressure on Antonio Conte, and if he were to lose to West Brom at the weekend, it is incredibly unlikely that he would keep his job. Since the turn of the year, Chelsea have played ten matches, winning just two. They were well off their best in the EFL Cup semifinals against Arsenal, losing 2-1 on aggregate, and the less said about their woeful FA Cup clashes with Norwich the better, only beating the Championship side on penalties.
With the club slowly sliding down the table, RealSport looks at why falling out of the European places could actually help Chelsea in the long run.
A wake-up call for the board
If Chelsea were to finish outside of the top five, it would be the second time in the space of three seasons that they had done so. A Premier League triumph has papered over the cracks, fooling the powers that be the club is in a strong position. Chelsea didn’t have to contend with any European football last season, giving them a free path to the title. Leicester did exactly the same the season before with a weaker squad, indicating there was nothing special about Antonio Conte’s title success.
With a new £1 billion stadium on the way, perhaps the board's focus has been drawn too much to this project. Chelsea have also looked lost in the transfer market since the loss of technical director Michael Emelano to Monaco. The Nigerian was responsible for the acquisitions of Eden Hazard, Cesar Azpilicueta, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku during his tenure at Stamford Bridge, and Chelsea are in desperate need of players of that quality.
No European action next season would force for the club to focus on football again, as even during last season’s title winning campaign, they looked to save financially, recording a transfer loss of just £18 million over the season. Chelsea should take inspiration from Arsenal, who have finally dug into their pockets, spending over £100 million this term.
A change of management
Antonio Conte is a fantastic manager, but there have been questions over his future ever since he won the title last season. The fact he signed a new deal last summer which didn’t extend his length of contract was an alarm bell, and you then can’t blame the board for not wanting to splash the cash for an uncommitted coach.
This may now be distracting the players, with Conte saying in January that “anything is possible” over his future. Sensing unrest, the Italian has back-tracked, and at the start of February he insisted he would see out the remaining 18 months on his contract. Despite distancing himself from the prospect, it would make perfect sense for Conte to leave Chelsea at the end of the season and go back to the Italian national team who he galvanised during Euro 2016. Why else would the Azzurri be taking their time over an appointment?
If Conte were to leave it would bring a fresh slate for the players, and a likely change of system from his 3-4-3 formation. After it was so successful, it was copied by many other Premier League clubs, but the likes of Tottenham, Manchester City and Arsenal have now gone back to a more conventional four at the back formation. Opponents are wising up on Conte’s lineup, and a system change would free up more space in attack and allow more creative players on the pitch.
The whole is greater than the individual
The biggest casualties of a European absence for Chelsea would likely be Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois. Both have stalled over new contracts, and when The Blues found their form just before Christmas it looked as if the Belgian pair would be putting pen to paper. With a serious change in fortunes, they both could be heading to Real Madrid in the summer.
After a successful three-year loan spell at Atletico Madrid, the Spanish capital feels like home to goalkeeper Courtois, stating “my heart is in Madrid” this past week. As for Eden Hazard, Real will no doubt be looking to replace the 33-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo sooner rather than later, and the chance to be the next Galactico would be too good to turn down for Hazard, 27, who is entering his prime.
As much as it would be hard for the Chelsea fans to see these two world class players leave Stamford Bridge, it would perhaps call in a new dawn in West London. This season, especially when Conte has used a 5-3-2 system, it has often looked like the players are just trying to get the ball to Hazard and expect (or hope for) him to produce something.
It was a similar tale for Tottenham when Gareth Bale was at the club, and after some years of development and reinvestment, Spurs have now one of the strongest squads in the league. Yes, Harry Kane may be the star player, but it is very much a team effort for The Lilywhites. Could Chelsea actually learn something from rivals Tottenham, a club they have so often looked down their noses at?
Building on this, there is a desperate need for new, top-class talent at Stamford Bridge, especially if there are some summer exits. Arsenal have let the money fly, and it is time for Chelsea to do the same. Signing the likes of David Luiz and N’Golo Kante after a poor season in 2016 showed that they can still attract top class talent, and you can compare those two to the uninspired acquisitions of Tiemoue Bakayoko, Ross Barkley and Olivier Giroud this season.
So, who could they bring in? Antoine Griezmann and Gareth Bale could be available in the summer and unlike their weak attempt for the Manchester United-bound Alexis Sanchez in January, Chelsea need to take the initiative in the transfer market. No more links to average players like Peter Crouch, Andy Carroll and Ashley Barnes if The Blues are to be a force once again.
A chance for youth
Chelsea have a great youth team. The U23s just became the first ever youth side to make it to the EFL Trophy semifinals, and the academy sides have won seven trophies in the past three seasons. The likes of Ethan Ampadu, Charly Musonda, Dujon Sterling and Callum Hudson-Odoi have been given first team opportunities this season and impressed, so an incredibly bright future lies ahead.
The Blues have a habit of buying players too early in their careers in the past, and then not giving them the opportunity to develop. Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku have left the club to go on and become superb players, so Chelsea should perhaps to give their own youngsters a chance before searching for the next big thing.
Kurt Zouma, Jeremie Boga, Kenedy, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Tammy Abraham and Michy Batshuayi have all been sent out on loan this season, and this is a massive area of concern. More than 35 Chelsea owned players are applying their trade elsewhere this season, and this is seriously counter-productive.
Loftus-Cheek has earned an England call-up since arriving at Crystal Palace at the start of the season, and the strong, dynamic 22-year-old could have been the answer to Chelsea’s midfield problem had he been kept hold of this season. Michy Batshuayi scoring twice on his Borussia Dortmund debut as his parent club lost to Bournemouth 3-0 without a striker in the matchday 18 said it all.
With a new stadium on the horizon, it could be the ideal time for Chelsea to start afresh. No European football would take the pressure off the new manager, and if he could be given the task of rebuilding the club as opposed to instant success, there would be a greater result in the long run.
This happening seems unlikely given Roman Abramovich’s revolving door policy and the amount of cash at stake in the Premier League. The football purists can dream, for didn’t someone once say, “slow and steady wins the race?”.
What needs to change at Chelsea? Let us know in the comments section below.