These are troubling times, indeed, for Antonio Conte. Everything that marked out Chelsea’s impressive Premier League title-winning campaign: continuity, organisation and industry is unravelling at progressively alarming speeds, with each negative performance.
Tuesday night’s 3-0 defeat in Rome was dreadful but is not a disaster in the wider context of their chances of reaching the Champions League knockout stages; what will really rattle Roman Abramovich and his generals at Stamford Bridge, Marina Granovskaia and Bruce Buck, is how it ran completely contrary to what Conte’s Chelsea have stood for since 2016.
Yet another variation of his back-three – the ninth iteration of the season, according to www.football365.com – wasn’t so much ripped apart, but shredded, juiced and then spat back out for public humiliation.
The instances of truly basic defensive errors were too numerous to count but the nadir was surely when Edin Dzeko accelerated half the field, drew all three of David Luiz, Antonio Rudiger and Cesar Azpilicueta to the ball and then with the most straightforward of turns set up a totally unattended Diego Perotti with a clear opening, only for the Argentine to blast over.
Conte was not the only one wincing as it would have made coaches at the youngest age groups question their methods. But it wasn’t an isolated incident.
How can such an impressive defensive outfit stacked with international footballers morph into such a calamitous and amateur-looking outfit? Of course, blame lies with individuals but when there is such a collective breakdown in thought and process, it will, as it always has done, come back to the manager.
Especially when that manager is a man whose entire methodology places so much emphasis on how his team play in a defensive sense, both with and without the call. That Conte’s primary calling card was snapped in three (and, in truth, Roma should have won by more) points to a severing of communication and trust between what the coach wants and how his player are delivering it.
In other areas, Cesc Fabregas was a static figure in midfield. Some analysis has slightly alleviated his culpability based on the fact he is now 30 and cannot run games like before. However, in opposition was the 34-year-old Daniele De Rossi and 29-year-old Radja Nainggolan. There was more to such a rapid decline than just an ageist excuse. The Spaniard’s lack of control only heaped the lifting onto Tiemoue Bakayoko, who just couldn’t cope.
But, to bring it back to Conte, Fabregas’ inability to play in a duo against such high-intensity opponents has been apparent for years.
— Sky Sports Statto (@SkySportsStatto) October 31, 2017
N’Golo Kante is the missing man whose injury absence has apparently left a chasm greater than even Leicester anticipated when they sold the Frenchman to the Blues last summer. But surely Conte is a manager whose skillset is capable of countering this.
Marcos Alonso’s effectiveness on the left-flank has totally disappeared, frequently losing the ball and offering little in an attacking sense, which only seeks to amplify his defensive flaws.
Outside of Thibaut Courtois’ long limbs it was only Eden Hazard who offered anything resembling a performance and that was as much to do with his own individual genius that the gameplan he was given.
It is, of course, easy to pinpoint such a poor performance and highlight it’s significance but there has been tension in west London, long before Rome.
Conte’s calm and charm of last season has been replaced by public irritation over arrivals and
departures plus Diego Costa-related drama, which presents an overall atmosphere that either he is not happy and/or individuals at the club are not happy with him.
It was September 24 last year when Chelsea lost 3-0 at Arsenal, that forced Conte into a systematic rethink and allowed him to craft his squad into title-winners, shifting to a back-three with a settled pool of 12-13 regulars with little need for rotation.
That task is considerably harder against the backdrop of the Champions League to contend with and injury issues he largely avoided, but maybe, in the wake of a similar scoreline and defeat just as shattering, another reset is needed.
Because as his predecessors in this job have shown, once things go south in west London, Abramovich is rarely a man to afford a great deal of patience.
Jurgen Klopp’s side are hardly charging towards their target – despite the 7-0 thrashing of the Slovenians a fortnight ago – and this match reflected their incremental progress in Group E.
There was another missed penalty, from James Milner, but leading scorer Mohamed Salah’s 10th of the season, a classy Emre Can goal and a late Daniel Sturridge strike secured victory and they lead Sevilla by a point – victory in Spain in three weeks would see the Reds qualify with a match to spare.
So, who else is there to take a pen then?— Alex Rea (@AlexReaSport) November 1, 2017
Here are three things learned from Anfield.
Ever since Sadio Mane’s injury the debate over team selection has revolved largely around Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and the question of when he’ll make his full league debut in Red.
That’s still to happen but on the basis of his performance in a first Champions League start for his new club, the 24-year-old should be in the XI against West Ham on Saturday.
Maribor are a poor side there’s no questioning that, but Oxlade-Chamberlain’s integration into a new style and system is virtually complete after he profited from their inferiority.
He attempted six crosses and many of his deliveries were good. Perhaps the Reds lack the height and power to really make use of them but he offers something different to Mohamed Salah who often cuts inside.
Regardless, he was positive and he appears a lot more settled. Jurgen Klopp praised him post-match for his pressing and it’s one sign that he’s beginning to make strides.
With no Adam Lallana, Sadio Mane or Philippe Coutinho, his emergence has come at the right time for Liverpool.
Daniel Sturridge is held high in Liverpool fan’s affections and it will be pleasing in the week the 28-year-old reached 100 club goals he also reached another feat.
His late goal for the host’s third – another tidy finish to follow his sumptuous strike against Huddersfield – was staggeringly his first in the Champions League since scoring against Zilina for Chelsea in November 2010.
It’s both sad and infuriating that we haven’t seen the best of Sturridge since his exploits in the 2013/14 campaign with injuries typically hallmarking his Anfield career.
But the England international has the appetite and crucially the fitness to force his way back into contention for a regular starting berth.
And while the Reds were victorious against Maribor it would be nice to see Klopp mix it up and operate with two up front with Sturridge in the two.
On the evidence of this season, he’s still arguably the club’s best finisher and utilising him as much as possible would be in the German boss’s best interest.
Liverpool’s last scorer from the penalty spot was James Milner so it seemed right that after misses from Divock Origi, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino he would be the one called upon should another be awarded.
Wrong. While Jasmin Handanovic deserves credit for a super stop, Milner’s failure from the spot means the Reds have now missed five of their last seven penalties.
It begs the question of who is next to try their luck?
Captain Jordan Henderson appears an obvious candidate but considering the ability he’s shown from set-pieces already why not just allow Trent Alexander-Arnold step up.
It’s an issue Klopp needs to rectify because although it hasn’t come back to bite them against Huddersfield and Maribor, against better quality opposition they could be made to pay.
Dele Alli fired Tottenham into the Champions League last 16 as his brace inspired a swaggering 3-1 win over Real Madrid that condemned the troubled holders to their first group-stage defeat in five years.
Here are three things learned from Wembley.
If they thought things couldn’t get any worse than Sunday’s shock league defeat to lowly minnows Girona, Real Madrid were forced to think again at Wembley as they produced easily the worst performance of Zinedine Zidane’s tenure.
Make no mistake, Los Blancos are now in a full-blown crisis and Sunday’s thankfully very winnable home meeting with Las Palmas could even be a last chance for Zidane to save his job.
That might sound ridiculous for a man who led his team to a league and European double just five months ago but the pace of change is relentless at the Bernabeu and president Florentino Perez will find it difficult to forgive a display like this in such a prestigious setting.
Madrid were poor all over the pitch with their performance offering virtually no redeeming features. Individuals were partly to blame, with Casemiro, Marcelo and Karim Benzema particularly poor, but more worrying was the team’s overall lack of structure and purpose.
If there isn’t a major improvement very quickly, Zidane may not last much longer.
Madrid’s shapeless mess of a display sharply contrasted with the all-round excellence of Tottenham, who were disciplined, well-ordered and fiercely united right from the opening whistle.
It was a masterclass gameplan from highly rated Spurs coach Mauricio Pochettino, who must have wondered whether he will soon be stepping into Zidane’s shoes as they shook hands at the final whistle.
Throughout the game, Tottenham were compact where Madrid were disorganised; tigerish where the visitors were flaccid; constructive where the Spanish team were aimless. And a large portion of the credit for that must go to Pochettino, who clearly has everyone in his team understanding their roles and consequently full of confidence in their ability to control and win matches.
The fact that Tottenham were able to dominate the centre of the field – normally Madrid’s strong point – was particularly impressive, with the home players knowing exactly when to sit back and allow harmless possession and when to collectively engage in an attempt to win the ball.
Make room Messrs Guardiola, Mourinho, Simeone et al…you’ve got a new rival for the best coach in the world category.
All the talk before the game was about Harry Kane and whether the goal-hungry frontman would further enhance his chances of earning a big-money move to Madrid at the end of the season.
But in the end Tottenham thrashed Los Blancos without even needing a goal from Kane, who had his thunder well and truly stolen by two-goal star Dele Alli.
Playing in an advanced midfield role in support of Kane, Alli was magnificent – not only for his two goals, but for his excellent movement, use of space, link play and relentless work rate.
The only negative was that he didn’t complete his hat-trick by missing a presentable late headed chance, but that will be easily forgiven by disbelieving Tottenham fans as their team swept aside the reigning champions.
And with Alli complemented by strong performances from Kane, Harry Winks, Eric Dier and Kieran Trippier, perhaps watching England boss Gareth Southgate could have found himself the nucleus of a pretty strong team.