Transfer market failings, a lack of trust in players, squad depth and indiscipline all costing Antonio Conte's team
Champions Chelsea have gone from largely error-free to alarmingly error-prone
It was the shock result of the season. It was the same result as last season. Both seemingly contradictory statements are true. Chelsea lost 2-1 to Crystal Palace on Saturday. Indeed, as they were also beaten by Palace in April and that was at Stamford Bridge, that was arguably worse.
Yet then, of course, Palace had not made an unprecedentedly bad start, becoming the first team in top-flight history in England to lose their opening seven games without scoring.
Yet if the similarity of their surprise conquerors – and Wilfried Zaha scored and starred in both Palace wins – suggests Antonio Conte’s team are following their title-winning formula with rather greater devotion than the Italian may wish, there is already a dramatic difference. Chelsea lost one league game to the bottom 14 last year. Now they have been defeated by both Burnley and Palace. After one setback in 28 against the rest, two in four.
Chelsea became champions because of a campaign that reflected Conte’s driven nature and his relentlessness. They were arguably not the most talented team. They were the most dedicated, the most consistent, the most well-coached and the least complacent.
Because they beat the rest, they did not need to beat the best on the road. Perhaps they only had one genuinely outstanding result, the 3-1 triumph away at Manchester City, but it was surrounded by plenty of other impressive ones. Mistakes were almost abolished as they won the winnable games. They posted 93 points while taking just one of them at Anfield, Old Trafford, White Hart Lane or the Emirates Stadium.
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There was a methodical brilliance to the blueprint. This season, Chelsea have shown a different form of brilliance. Two months into the new season, they have more outstanding results than in the entirety of last year.
Victories at Tottenham and Atletico Madrid were procured because Chelsea were tactically superb and wonderfully configured. They rose to the occasion. Yet if they have gone from small-game specialists to big-game excellence, they have not risen to every occasion. The stalemate with Arsenal and Stamford Bridge setback against City account for the other five points Chelsea have dropped.
With the pace the Manchester clubs have set and the probability that at least 90 points will be needed to retain the title, Chelsea will probably need away wins against the elite. Perhaps an identity shift will be completed, from a team who displayed great consistency to one who get great results.
They may have to. The temptation is to say that Conte is suffering from second-season syndrome. It may be more accurate to cite the more normal issues from which Chelsea seemed virtually immune last season as, without European football, they became a byword for consistency of selection.
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Eden Hazard missed the Burnley defeat. Alvaro Morata and N’Golo Kante could not face Palace, while Victor Moses had to come off. Yet injuries have been allied with flawed decision-making that suggests that Chelsea have taken their eye off the ball.
Tim Cahill and Cesc Fabregas were sent off against Burnley and Morata initially benched. Cahill conceded they started sloppily against Palace. If ever a team could take victory for granted, it seemed reigning champions ought to against a side without a league goal or point for 153 days, but Chelsea’s focus rarely strayed last season.
Absentees – and Chelsea’s suspensions have all been deserved – and European commitments have stretched the squad. Discontent over the summer transfer business seemed to seep into the opening-day loss. The consequences of their recruitment were felt on Saturday. The eventual purchase of Danny Drinkwater brought an injured midfielder, scarcely what Conte needed when Kante was then sidelined. The failure to get Fernando Llorente left Michy Batshuayi the lone fit centre-forward when Morata was hamstrung, and it is patently obvious Conte does not trust the Belgian.
Each issue contributed to their problems at Palace. But having virtually eliminated avoidable errors last season, Chelsea are now being reminded that they come at a considerable cost.