Sunday 16 December 2018

'Cold' Conte averts crisis but Chelsea look fragile

Antonio Conte barks out the orders at Stamford Bridge Photo: Reuters
Antonio Conte barks out the orders at Stamford Bridge Photo: Reuters

Jonathan Liew

Turning points, most of the time, become evident only in hindsight. Nobody who saw Chelsea's 3-0 defeat at Arsenal early last season would have suspected that a simple half-time tactical switch, from four at the back to three, would be the catalyst that drove Antonio Conte's side to the title.

After an hour of Saturday's match at Stamford Bridge, with the home side 2-1 down and Watford rampant, very few would have suspected that Chelsea's fortunes were about to take a turn for the better.

Watford were carving Chelsea open at will and Richarlison had missed two glorious chances that would have put Watford 4-1 up.

Chelsea's players were bawling at each other like schoolchildren. The mood in the stands was not quite mutiny, more a sort of blind, high-pitched panic.

Conte, normally so animated and demonstrative, simply paced up and down his technical area a little sadly. Not waving, and not far from drowning. The dam, you sensed, was about to burst.

"When you see your team suffering it is not simple," Conte explained afterwards. "But you must be cold to try to find the right way to help your team."

But this is not 2015-16, Conte is not Jose Mourinho, and the dam did not burst.

Conte was cold. He took off the under-performing Marcos Alonso, brought on Michy Batshuayi and Willian and was rewarded with three late goals.

Chelsea took Watford's fourth place in the table and kept up the pressure on the Manchester clubs and Tottenham.

Crisis averted. For now, at any rate.

"The performance was not great, no sugar-coating that," admitted Gary Cahill. "But the three points was all that mattered. On to the next one, and build a bit of momentum that way. When you get a few back-to-back wins, you will see how everything lifts."

And yet it is hard to see Chelsea going on that winning run without addressing some of their underlying issues.

Seven goals conceded in a week - following the 2-1 defeat at Crystal Palace and the 3-3 draw with Roma - is not exactly the stuff of champions, for instance.

Too many of their players are not playing at their peak. Cahill, arguably, is one of them. Cesar Azpilicueta is another. Cesc Fabregas and Tiemoue Bakayoko are still one Kante short of a solid midfield.

Chelsea are badly in need of some of the back-to-basics defensive drilling that so dramatically turned their season around a year ago, but with the Champions League packing their schedule, it is hard to see where the time for that will come from.

Leaky

"We are not on the training pitch as much because of that," Cahill admitted. "Last season, naturally you feel fresh going into games. But you can't say you can't win the league because of that. We won the league two years ago playing Champions League football. So it is what it is."

Cahill did, however, proffer an explanation for Chelsea's uncharacteristically leaky defence.

"Against Roma I felt the work-rate was there, but the intensity was slightly off," he said.

"Last season we were closing down all the way and rushing decisions from opponents. Collectively we were doing things better. The shape worked so well because everyone did their job."

Read between the lines, therefore, and we can surmise that Cahill does not think everybody is doing their job this season.

And this perhaps speaks to the other, less quantifiable issue with this Chelsea squad at the moment - its emotional fragility.

As Watford started to take the initiative on Saturday, you could see fingers being pointed, blame being apportioned, decisions being questioned.

It is hard not to conclude, therefore, that this is not a club that is currently united behind a common vision.

Conte's ongoing skirmish with the board over recruitment is just one manifestation of that.

Brittleness behind the scenes translates into brittleness on the pitch, in turn lowering the mood still further.

"I would guess it's the same at every other big club," Cahill said. "When things are going well, everyone's coming into training, having a lot of banter and joking about. When you are not, it's not that feeling, because the expectation level is to win. That's natural."

Chelsea play Everton next in the League Cup, which Conte said would be an opportunity for young players like Charly Musonda and Kenedy to stake a claim.

Following that, Bournemouth away, the return fixture against Roma, and then a reunion with Mourinho's United at Stamford Bridge.

At the end of that run, we should have a much clearer idea of whether this Chelsea side is equipped to challenge for the big prizes.

The quality is certainly there, and their comeback on Saturday showed the spirit is still there.

Yet so much else feels wrong.

Chelsea remain title challengers, just about. However, it is a title challenge that is being held together with paperclips and string. (© Independent News Service)

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