The Season So Far
Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea seem to have two kinds of seasons: in Type 1, they either win the title at a canter, everyone connected to the club is happy, and their manager quickly becomes the most popular man in West London; in Type 2, they merely finish in or around the top four, Stamford Bridge sinks into misery and rage as it slowly becomes clear they won’t be lifting the Premier League trophy in May, and their manager acrimoniously departs at some stage of the season. This has been the archetypal Type 2 season.
Antonio Conte has made no secret of his displeasure with the club and their transfer dealings last summer. He knows the Blues are no longer the highest payers in the world and can’t simply hoover up the most talented players around à la Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain, but he still asked for and expected much better than what he’s been given this season.
On the one hand, it’s hard not to feel sympathy. If you’re defending a title won with a paper thin squad and need to flesh it out so that you can not only defend that title but also do well in Europe, you need both quality and quantity in terms of new signings.
The likes of Danny Drinkwater, Davide Zappacosta, Ross Barkley and Emerson Palmieri are less than stellar additions. Meanwhile, obviously talented signings like Antonio Rüdiger, Álvaro Morata and Tiémoué Bakayoko needed to do much more to stamp their personalities on the team. Bakayoko in particular has become a figure of derision and rage - the symbol of how badly this Chelsea season has gone.
On the other hand, Conte has made several bizarre tactical decisions and has done plenty besides to ensure that Chelsea never hit the heights they’re capable of, seemingly just to make a point about his unhappiness with their transfer business.
Playing Hazard as a striker for much of the season only starved Chelsea’s best player of possession and put the creative onus on players who simply aren’t good enough with the ball at their feet; playing a midfield trio of players who all do the same thing made Chelsea slow, predictable and easy to defend; throwing David Luiz and Álvaro Morata under the bus was odd and simply bad man-management, while criticising Ross Barkley shortly after his debut and, best of all, claiming to know nothing at all about Emerson Palmieri when he obviously knew plenty were both petty and selfish acts of a man who knew his time was up.
The Season Ahead
It’s going to be a long few weeks for Chelsea, with almost everyone involved already thinking about next season or the World Cup more than finishing the domestic season. The Blues are unlikely to make the top four, which in itself represents a significant failure, and the enthusiasm has basically gone along with their chances of salvaging their league campaign. Unless you’re Arsenal, winning the FA Cup is no longer considered a worthwhile substitute for lost Champions League revenue, pulling power and prestige.
The elephant in the room is that Antonio Conte can’t wait to get out of Stamford Bridge and go back to Italy, so Chelsea fans will once again be busy speculating over the identity of their next manager. Plenty have been linked, with Mauricio Sarri, Luis Enrique and Thomas Tuchel prominently mentioned in the gossip columns for months.
They have to get the next appointment right: with the departure of Michael Emenalo leaving a void at boardroom level and Conte going leaving an equally sizeable vacuum in the dugout, Chelsea could conceivably go into freefall. To make matters worse, Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois have also been linked with summer exits and the loss of either would be a hammer blow to the club’s hopes of returning to the top four in 2018-19.
Conte has returned to the 3-4-2-1 of the title-winning season in recent weeks, with which Tottenham fans will be more than familiar given Spurs’ adoption of the formation at various points over the last year. The logic in the system is sound and it plays to all of Chelsea’s strengths.
The back three provides a solid base in possession and protection against opposition counter attacks, while the dynamic full-backs can add themselves on to make it a back five, while also acting as attacking outlets, bombing forward to turn the Blues’ fluid front three into a front four or a five. Marcos Alonso is especially dangerous, often turning up in the box or in the number ten position to create a central overload.
Should Conte return to the 3-5-1-1 of which he seemed so enamoured earlier in the season, we can expect a far less effective Chelsea side, with too much creativity required from Hazard, who will inevitably end up triple-marked. This shifted the burden onto the central midfielders, none of whom can carry an attack the way Hazard can, and isolated Álvaro Morata, whose frustration and tantrums pretty much killed his season.
As ever, when we’re talking about failures and freefalls with Chelsea we have to put things into perspective: this is still a sensationally strong and largely well-coached football team. They easily dominate matches, they have an enviable tactical balance and their individuals are largely perfect for their roles in the team. In Eden Hazard and N’Golo Kanté they have two of the best players in the Premier League and in Thibaut Courtois one of the best goalkeepers. When Antonio Conte is not too busy point-scoring or burning bridges, he’s one of the best managers in the world.
The stats confirm how good Chelsea are. In defence: only three teams have allowed fewer shots on their goal this season; no team has allowed fewer shots from inside their own six-yard box; only Liverpool have made more tackles while making fewer fouls; no team has a more effective offside trap than Chelsea’s. In attack: only three teams have taken more shots; only two have had more on target; no team has completed more dribbles; no side has created more chances from set pieces.
This is simply a very, very good side. They could be better and they’ve come up short too often this season, but the overall picture doesn’t change.
The manager seems hell-bent on screwing everything up so that he can go home and it has seemed that many of the players are inching towards the exit door too. This isn’t exactly the team most likely to go above and beyond to get a result.
Courtois and Andreas Christensen face late fitness tests but both should be fine to play. A question mark remains over whether Conte will go with the discipline and positional sense of Bakayoko over the creativity and madcap headless chickening of Cesc Fàbregas alongside Kanté, while it could be that Olivier Giroud represents a trustier, more mature presence up front than Morata. We shall see.
A Spurs win here would effectively end Chelsea’s season, so of course Chelsea will win 2-0.