Six months is a long time in football. In April of this year, Antonio Conte’s Chelsea were well on their way to a Premier League trophy which was won with games to spare. Fast forward to the present day and the dynamic Italian finds himself in something of a rut.
Despite it only being nine games old, Chelsea have already been involved in the two biggest upsets of the season so far: losing on the opening day at home to Burnley before failing to beat a Crystal Palace side bottom of the league who had not scored a goal until that point.
Josh Duggan gives us some explanation for why Chelsea will not be retaining the Premier League trophy come the end of the season.
1 There is no squad depth
Last Year, Antonio Conte relied on 14 players to carry his side to a league title. That was all well and good when his side weren’t competing in the Champions League. Without the need for heavy rotation, Conte could field his best XI every week which had the subsequent benefit of allowing his team to thrive off the continuity it bred.
This year has been a different beast entirely. After a poor transfer window in which quality was brought in, that quality was, for the most part, only a replacement for already outgoing first-team players such as Nemanja Matic and Diego Costa. By the end of the summer, there was no substantive depth added and this has led to problems for the team who are currently fighting on four fronts.
Antonio Conte is famous for his approach to player integration, being intent to slowly bed his signings before bringing them into the starting XI. At the beginning of the season, the club’s marquee signing Alvaro Morata didn’t start the club’s first two competitive games, and David Zappacosta isn’t seeing much action, even with his ability to score wonder goals. Conte will find it less than ideal that he is now forced into playing unsettled players due to injuries picked up across the pitch.
Which brings us to injuries. Chelsea were blessed last year by the injury gods but have had no such luck this year. With star Eden Hazard missing the start of the season, Alvaro Morata struggling with on-going fitness issues, and midfield lynchpin N’Golo Kante out for the next month potentially, Chelsea are being stretched to the limit. This led Conte to field Tiemoue Bakayoko and David Luiz in the recent match against Watford, both of whom were playing through injury. In an already thin squad, that’s troubling.
In addition, Conte’s reluctance to turn to youth options in the squad is only agitating an already troublesome situation. Ethan Ampadu and Charly Musonda have hardly seen time this year with Conte choosing to play his more favoured players out of place, rather than handing starts. After selling Nathaniel Chalobah and loaning Rueben Loftus-Cheek out this summer, one wonders if 'squad depth' is a problem of his own making?
2 Conte is now under pressure
It’s not always the results that gets a coach fired: once the rumours start about a coach’s future, it’s often goodbye to them. There were rumours before the season that Conte was unhappy with the club’s transfer dealings. This likely created tension that the Italian has struggled to shake off as the season has unfolded.
In recent week, there have been rumours that the club and Conte are at loggerheads once more with Conte citing injuries, scheduling and the club’s summer transfer business for poor results. The club, on the other hand, believe that recent results may be the result of Conte’s heavy training program.
Whatever the reason, the side hasn’t meshed as well as last year. Consecutive losses in the league - as happened with Manchester City and Crystal Palace - were unheard of in the championship-winning season. With an owner as notoriously fickle as Roman Abrahamovic, one wonders how many of those runs Conte and his contract can handle.
3 Manchester City are just too good
The same reason Chelsea won’t win the league is the same reason Manchester United won’t... and the same reason Tottenham won’t… Manchester City are flying. Pep Guardiola has finally installed his system at City and look unbeatable right now.
While City started last year in similar fashion, they hit a roadblock around November as their defence faltered and many accused Guardiola of having over-complicated his system.
This season, Guardiola seems to bee a more relaxed figure. His defensive options appear to be more to his liking this year too and, with Danilo, Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy all coming into the squad, he appears to have a palette he can paint his football picture with finally.
When Manchester City came to Stamford Bridge last month, Kevin De Bruyne put his old side to the sword, scoring the goal stole all 3 points for City. This was the type of match Chelsea would have won last season. As good as Chelsea or any side may be this year, then, City are just better.
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