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.