Monday 24 October 2016

Aidan O'Hara: Conte will need plenty of wisdom to solve the issue of Chelsea's pensioners

Published 19/09/2016 | 02:30

Conte: “We must not forget last season. It’s important this.” Photo credit: Reuters / John Sibley
Conte: “We must not forget last season. It’s important this.” Photo credit: Reuters / John Sibley

Perhaps it's to do with the traditional strong bond between sons and their mothers but there aren't many countries with such a strong respect for their elders as Italy.

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"For there is, assuredly, nothing dearer to a man than wisdom, and though age takes away all else, it undoubtedly brings us that," wrote Cicero, a Roman philosopher, who was sadly murdered in 43BC, aged 63, for, it seems, having a little too much wisdom.

As he looked at the Chelsea defence on Friday night being run ragged by Liverpool's fitness and pace, Antonio Conte, assuredly, should have had plenty of cause for concern.

It's always dangerous to place too much emphasis on one performance in the early part of the season but the warning signs are there that The Liquidator - played before every Chelsea home game - may need to be replaced by the theme tune to Dad's Army.

"We must not forget last season. It's important this," said Conte (below) on Friday night. "I don't want a repeat of last season."

There is no logical explanation for a squad with Chelsea's talent finishing tenth in the Premier League but the easiest way for Conte to avoid a repeat of last season might be to stop picking so many of the same players from last season.


Of the team that started on Friday, nine played over 20 games for a team who produced the worst defence of a league title in Premier League history, while the substitutes, Cesc Fabregas and Pedro, made 57 appearances in the ill-fated campaign. Had John Terry been fit, that number would probably have been 10 out of the starting 11 and the club's nickname of The Pensioners suddenly starts to feel quite appropriate

Go back almost exactly two years to the away game at Manchester City and Courtois, Ivanovic, Cahill, Azpilicueta, Hazard, Matic, Willian and Costa all started, as they did in the defeat to Liverpool. The other three -in what was their biggest game of that season to date - were Terry, Fabregas and Ramires.

In that season, Chelsea were outstanding under Jose Mourinho but that increasingly looks like an aberration from a group of players who put their shoulder to the wheel for a swansong, given their previous three seasons had seen Premier League finishes of sixth, third and third.

Their Champions League and Europa League triumphs in that period, obviously, can't be discounted but when it comes to the 38-game grind of a Premier League season, it seems peculiar for a club of Chelsea's side to be trusting in so many players - certainly in defence - whose best days are undoubtedly behind them.

The arrival of David Luiz certainly adds experience - although probably not much of the wisdom which Cicero was talking about - and he will provide extra defensive cover but it's an indictment of the club that Terry's worth, even at 35, continues to go up every time he is injured.

In contrast, City's captain, leader and legend Vincent Kompany was told by manager Pep Guardiola that his place isn't guaranteed in a two-sentence sound-bite which sums up Guardiola's distaste for reputation.

"We need the players competing with each other," said Guardiola last week. "They have to know if they don't play good that there's another one beside them and the next time he is going to play."

As if to underline the point on Saturday, with City 3-0 up and cruising at home to Bournemouth, it was John Stones rather than Kompany who was introduced from the bench seven minutes after half-time for centre-back Nicolás Otamendi.

Such a cut-throat outlook was common in the early seasons at Chelsea under Mourinho and Roman Abramoivic but it's indicative at the current lack of ruthlessness that a player like Ivanovic is still first-choice right-back despite being out of form for several dozen games. Against Liverpool, it was his foul on Georginio Wijnaldum on the left wing which led to Liverpool's opening goal with the sort of decision making that would have embarrassed a debutant. It would be a surprise, however, if he doesn't start against Arsenal next week.

Gary Cahill is in a similar predicament and never looks as good a player without Terry's guiding hand to hold.

In the build up to Friday's game on the banter-fest that is Sky Sports' Friday Night Football, Cahill engaged in an 'interview' with a man named 'Tubes', whose levels of forced hilarity are such that Cicero and the Roman boys might have fed him to the lions.

In the same way that Luiz's pre-match tweet probably had no impact on his performance, it would be a stretch to say that Cahill's poor display had anything to losing a game of tennis ball keepy-uppy against Tubes. Nevertheless, it's difficult to imagine Ricardo Carvalho doing the same thing.


Conte comes from a culture where the likes Dino Zoff, Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi and Gianluigi Buffon have distinguished themselves at the highest level at an age when most footballers are considering retirement.

At last summer's European Championships, the three centre-backs in Conte's favoured 3-5-2 formation were aged 29, 32 and 35 so it's unlikely that the age of his Chelsea team will bother him, but their performance on Friday certainly should.

"I must work more to improve my players," added Conte, showing remarkable optimism and self-assurance that he could get more from a group of players who, last season, downed tools on the most successful manager in the club's history.

Diego Costa has scored three times in the final 10 minutes of games this season, earning Chelsea an extra five points against West Ham, Watford and Swansea, which either points to a team with a never-say-die attitude or one who has been getting away with it.

Five of their next six games are against Arsenal, Leicester, Manchester United, Southampton and Everton, which will give Conte a better idea whether the display against Liverpool was an aberration or one which suggests they have too many miles in the legs.

It might even, as Cicero suggests, bring him a bit of wisdom.

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