Antonio Conte‘s Chelsea play a Manchester United side managed by Jose Mourinho on Sunday seeking to stay in touch at the top of the Premier League. The Blues, champions last term, trail leaders Manchester City by nine points after 10 games.
Here’s a look at what is happening to Chelsea this season.
CONTE’S FIRST SEASON SET UNREALISTIC EXPECTATIONS
In many ways Chelsea overachieved last season, responding from a 10th-placed finish to win the title in Conte’s first campaign. That success led to heightened expectations, but, while last term Conte could concentrate on domestic duty and drill his players with one game most weeks, now there is the Champions League to consider.
European action requires squad depth, careful rotation of players while maintaining consistency of performance and good fortune with injuries. Chelsea have been brilliant at times (the win at Atletico Madrid) and abject at others (losses to Crystal Palace and at Roma) and are still seeking answers.
“WE WANT TO AVOID THE MOURINHO SEASON”
Conte spoke in July of his desire to avoid the implosion which saw Mourinho sacked as Chelsea boss for a second time in December 2015, seven months after winning the title. The potential to follow Mourinho and Claudio Ranieri in being fired in the season following a Premier League win was clearly on his mind.
He regularly hinted at tensions behind the scenes over transfers, while he signed a new contract on improved terms, but crucially not an extension. Conte described himself as a clairvoyant for predicting a difficult campaign, but some might argue constant speculation over his position has contributed to it.
KEY DEPARTURES HAVE AFFECTED CHELSEA
Diego Costa‘s goals helped to win two titles in three seasons, but he was never settled. Conte cut his losses on the striker and when Chelsea won at Atletico, the club Costa returned to after his self-imposed exile, it seemed all was well. Yet, for all the qualities Alvaro Morata has, Costa’s tenacity has been missed.
Also lacking has been Nemanja Matic’s physicality and authority in midfield. Mourinho has gloated about Matic being allowed to join United. John Terry’s departure had been coming and, while he did not have the on-field influence of old, Chelsea miss his leadership in the dressing room.
THE KANTE CONUNDRUM
N’Golo Kante won the Premier League title with Leicester and Chelsea in successive seasons. Things looked promising when Kante performed brilliantly in the win at Atletico, before Chelsea were overpowered by Manchester City. That can be excused, given City’s performances so far this season. Then Kante suffered a hamstring injury which has seen him miss the last six games – and he could yet be absent for United’s visit.
He may be diminutive but leaves a sizeable void when not present. Chelsea must find a way to function effectively without him. They did not in Rome, when they were overrun in midfield, with Cesc Fabregas’ defensive frailties exposed.
Kante cannot solve all their problems by himself. Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois talked about going back to basics, concentrating on being difficult to beat first and foremost.
Confidence is lacking in the players: Morata began well with seven goals, but has struggled since a hamstring injury; Gary Cahill, the club captain, appeared forlorn in being substituted early in the second half at Roma. Conte must find a way to re-instil belief in his squad.