Monday 23 April 2018

Miguel Delaney: The threat of a 'Mourinho season' looms over Chelsea - and the next few weeks could get worse

Chelsea's Italian head coach Antonio Conte gestures on the touchline during the English Premier League football match between Chelsea and Burnley at Stamford Bridge in London on August 12, 2017. Burnley won the game 3-2. / AFP PHOTO / Ian KINGTON /Getty Image
Chelsea's Italian head coach Antonio Conte gestures on the touchline during the English Premier League football match between Chelsea and Burnley at Stamford Bridge in London on August 12, 2017. Burnley won the game 3-2. / AFP PHOTO / Ian KINGTON /Getty Image

Miguel Delaney

It was a day of unbelievable and genuinely unprecedented action at Stamford Bridge… but also a few unsaid words, if obvious thoughts.

After his Chelsea side’s sensational 3-2 defeat to Burnley, Antonio Conte was asked how worried he was about the situation, whether there were deeper concerns. No-one mentioned 2015-16 or, a “Mourinho season” - to use the Italian’s own words - but it certainly hung there, infusing an edge to everything. It also added fuel to what was already a difficult summer.

And that’s the real concern here. If the idea of a similar campaign to two years ago remains exaggerated for now, it is fair to wonder if the champions could at least get into the type of early slump that greatly affects what they can do in this season as a whole.

Chelsea after all still have a fine core squad and supreme best XI when available, while Conte himself remains one of the best and most cutting-edge managers in the game, but they can’t really benefit from any of that when they simply don’t have so many of those players now.

That was the deeper significance of this result, beyond the setback of just getting defeated in your first game. Chelsea have a very tricky spell coming up with games away to Tottenham Hotspur and home to Everton and, without so many key players for both of those games, almost needed to get a win in this notionally more forgiving fixture - at home to a side tipped for relegation - in order to offer that cushion.

There is now already the possibility that they could go into the international break with an awful lot of work to do once they get back.

They could of course well beat Spurs at Wembley just as they did in the FA Cup in April, but Conte is going to have to be even more creative with his XI because he is now missing a lot of players, especially in midfield.

Cesc Fabregas and Gary Cahill will be suspended, Eden Hazard and Tiemoue Bakayoko will still be injured, and he is now sweating on Pedro while hoping that Alvaro Morata is fit enough. The Spanish striker’s display, at least, was one of Saturday’s few positives.

It’s difficult to see a positive net effect in any potential XI for the Spurs game, though, because it is going to involve compromise somewhere. David Luiz may have to come into midfield but, with Gary Cahill out, that will likely mean a younger player like Andreas Christensen in defence.

That is a risk against a side as powerful as Spurs, but then maybe that is what Chelsea need to solve an even longer-term problem - their inability or reluctance to blood youth.

This entire Burnley game both displayed and distilled Conte’s main problem all summer, as the champions so badly suffered from such a short squad. The Italian denied that his starting XI was a message for the board, and it’s difficult to dispute that given the options available, but that should only raise more questions for the board - not least about the loan system and the use of youth.

Of the 18 players Conte named in his match-day squad, five of them - Jeremie Boga, Andreas Christensen, Charly Musonda Jr, Fikayo Tomori and Kyle Scott - had made a total of just two Premier League appearances between them.

At the same time, Chelsea had five of their own players - Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Tammy Abraham, Casey Palmer, Izzy Brown and Kurt Zouma - appearing in the Premier League this weekend while own loan at other clubs, with Nathaniel Chalobah and Nathan Ake also sold on.

There just doesn’t seem to be that any logic, and even less when you consider players like Nemanja Matic were sold before they had an ample replacements. In fact, 11 first-team players have been sold since January - or, at least 10 and the exiled Diego Costa - with just four brought in.

It doesn’t make much sense. It has also been noticed by the leading first-team players, with Gary Cahill even stating after the Community Shield that he was struck by how short the squad list on the back of the programme. Some close to the dressing room say “it has got into their heads'.

Conte is thereby right to be aggrieved, although this is also the time when he should perhaps adapt a bit too.

While his use of Boga was admirable, his comments on Friday regarding youth and those on-loan warrant consideration.

“When you speak about pressure with me and I am used to the pressure. For the young players it’s difficult because they are not used to it. They can pay from the pressure.”

This is ultimately closer to the ideas of Mourinho - notorious for never bringing through youth - than Sir Alex Ferguson or Mauricio Pochettino. Both of those have a supreme record with graduates and that’s because they take the plunge, they let players breathe a bit in the first team.

Conte at least started that with Boga and Christensen, and needs to continue it. It might be all the necessary given that they’re running out of time to do business.

This match and it’s relevant numbers emphasised that is needed more than anything, from the appearances on the bench to that final sensational score of 3-2.

It would of course help if Chelsea didn't keep giving teams numerical advantages, as has happened in their last three matches going back to the FA Cup final. Whatever the reason for that, whether ill-discipline or simply ill-judged decisions, it encapsulates the potential problem of this Burnley match and how problems can interlink and thereby escalate. Just as the uneasy mood about Chelsea was enhanced by Cahill's red card, this result could perpetuate it further, too.

Conte needs to arrest that, but just has to solve multiple problems in order to do so, starting with his very line-up next week.

(© Independent News Service)

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