Monday 20 November 2017

Conte's rotation policy leaves Chelsea on a downward spiral

Conte: Under pressure. Photo: Reuters
Conte: Under pressure. Photo: Reuters

Miguel Delaney

As much as Antonio Conte attempted to explain - and excoriate - Chelsea's performance in the Stadio Olimpico, it was just one of those nights when none of the words could match the impression made by the images.

Among them was the manager's demeanour as Roma continued to rain in shots and Gary Cahill's facial expression as he was hauled off after 55 minutes but perhaps the worst came 13 minutes after that.

That was when three Chelsea players chased Edin Dzeko in panicked desperation, only to leave Diego Perotti free to the left. Even then, Dzeko still turned all three of them to set him up.

It was like a silent movie, except it was all too real, and said something deeper about this defeat.

It reflected and revealed the dysfunction that has gradually gripped this team.

It was also the type of thing that was unimaginable from September last season, and the contrast from that term is so pronounced.

Chelsea have gone from the side whose supreme success was based on how seamlessly and fluidly they fitted together to one where there is an issue in almost every area, where nothing quite connects as it did.

The fact that Alvaro Morata just isn't Diego Costa has been much discussed and has disturbed their forward movement.

Behind him and Eden Hazard, the absence of N'Golo Kante will have an obvious effect but it is a worry that Conte doesn't seem to have found a balance without him.

Tiemoue Bakayoko has only played well beside his French compatriot, and Cesc Fabregas already looks to be struggling with the weight of minutes he's played.

"The injuries did not come at a good time," Thibaut Courtois said after the game.

"N'Golo was important for us and brings a lot of balance into the team but you cannot push him if he does not feel ready.

"Danny Drinkwater was out a long time as well, so Cesc and Baka played a lot of games and that impacts on their legs and it's harder for them to keep up the pressure, especially against the three midfielders like (Tuesday against Roma)."

Conte seems to have put more pressure on his three central defenders by changing so much. Players have been bizarrely switched around, like the decision to suddenly move Cahill to the right side.

It has meant that the centre-halves just aren't as comfortable with where they are supposed to be, resulting in more gaps - and more goals conceded.

All of that, however, might well say something that is specific to Conte's management: his long-term struggles to rotate, to find a balance amid more demanding seasons.

It has been an issue for some time, and was especially visible at Juventus when they were in the Champions League and then the Europa League.

The dilemma is that Conte demands a relentless vigour from his players to play his idealised football, but that requires finely-tuned familiar sides and is impossible to do if you have matches every three days.

The team needs to be changed to maintain that energy, but then the changes mean it's just impossible to enjoy the same tuning.

It also feels right now like Conte's attempts at rotation have actually worsened the dilemma, especially as those new players don't fully understand the system, nor have they had the time to do so.

Far from finding solutions to these problems, he is adding to them.

Those who know Conte from Italy say that this 3-0 defeat - on his first trip back to the country as manager - will have especially stung him, and that he hasn't looked this agitated since he was at Atalanta.

It hasn't helped that he still didn't get the players he wanted, or enough of them, but then it can't be overlooked that what was so impressive about last season was how he still made do. He still adjusted to what he had then, and badly needs to now; to show that mettle.

The Chelsea squad went over the Roma game yesterday afternoon and scrutinised what went wrong, and Conte does at least then have three full days to work with them before what could be a momentous match against Manchester United.

He is going to ensure they are a lot more alert than Tuesday, a lot more alive. He also needs to ensure they have a balance again. One man can greatly help with that, but he didn't get on the pitch in Rome.

Kante still walked through the Stadio Olimpico's mixed zone, and was asked whether he will be ready for Sunday.

He grimaced a bit and see-sawed his right hand to indicate it's touch and go. Yet another image of the night that said more than any words could. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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