Published On: Sat, Jan 13th, 2018

The honeymoon is over: How Chelsea lost its groove

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Antonio Conte is convinced his squad is too tired and too thin to cope with the demands of multiple competitions. Though Chelsea has contested eight matches over a 24-day period, the reality is that his players have shirked the challenge of defending last season’s Premier League title.

Saturday’s 0-0 draw with Leicester City was the latest evidence of a side that cannot impose its will. Chelsea was laborious in possession and ineffective in the final third. Apart from one spirited run into the penalty area, Alvaro Morata was once again anonymous as the lone striker. Eden Hazard was hooked for a fourth consecutive match, while Cesc Fabregas struggled to get forward.

The whole operation has been dire.

Chelsea is now scoreless in more than 270 minutes of football – and out of ideas. Despite adding an extra midfielder in a more compact 3-5-2 formation, Conte’s changes have only contributed to the problem. There’s a distinct lack of movement when Chelsea’s on the ball and a massive gap between the midfielders and the front two.

Leicester made it nearly impossible for Chelsea to recover any ground. Its relentless pressing forced Conte’s players to retreat and play the ball backward, and although Chelsea attempted 17 shots, opposite goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel was never called upon to produce a game-changing save. The busiest of the shot-stoppers was Thibaut Courtois, who made a sprawling stop early in the match to keep Chelsea from conceding first.

What the Blues have needed on such stifling occasions is a pure poacher to bail them out. Morata has yet to prove he’s capable of being that decisive. The £58-million acquisition from Real Madrid has botched goalmouth opportunities and drifted out of matches, his propensity to drop deeper removing him from dangerous scoring positions. Many consider Morata a more complete and technical player than Diego Costa, but a striker of the Brazilian’s directness would have salvaged some crucial points this season. For all of his antics, Costa was a deadly presence in the box and a true match-winner. Although Morata’s heading ability is sublime, his overall finishing has left a lot to be desired.


(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)

That’s not to say Chelsea’s issues start and end with its club-record signing. Premier League opponents have also learned how to stymie Chelsea, often mimicking a back-three to combat Conte’s own formation. By making themselves wider, teams have found a way to limit the effectiveness of Chelsea’s wingbacks and the service they may otherwise provide.

Signs of revitalisation appeared in September when Chelsea produced a stunning comeback victory over Atletico Madrid, a match that featured N’Golo Kante in a more attacking role. The energetic Frenchman put Atletico under pressure, making runs that preoccupied defenders and opened up spaces for his wider teammates to exploit. Fabregas also found himself in a more advanced role, with Tiemoue Bakayoko picking his moments to surge forward and distribute possession. Each player took part in the buildup play.

That kind of chemistry is long gone. Bakayoko has made high-profile errors, and the few times he’s pushed forward, he’s fired shots way off the mark. Frank Lampard accused the former AS Monaco pivot of sleeping during crucial sequences. Kante, too, has reverted to a more defensive position. Even some of Conte’s tactics have become negative. The Italian was too respectful of the Reds’ counter-attack in November’s 1-1 draw at Liverpool, sacrificing an attacker to field three midfield destroyers.

It’s therefore been left to Hazard to summon moments of magic. He’s tried to make things happen in a central role just behind Morata, but because the Belgian isn’t drifting in from the wing, defenders have a better chance of identifying his runs and phasing him out of the game. Hazard enjoyed so much success as an inside forward within Conte’s 3-4-3 schematic, where he had the help of Marcos Alonso to overload the left side. Now he has to create more by himself, attempt more dribbles, and link the midfield to the attack. It’s a lot to ask for.

Fatigue may have something to do with Chelsea’s downtick in form, but Conte cannot attribute his team’s woes to that alone.



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