With only one point out of a possible nine, pressure is mounting on Antonio Conte and his men to come up with the answers.
Antonio Conte’s appointment as manager came as a morale booster for Chelsea fans who were reeling from a catastrophic title-defending season under Jose Mourinho and his successor Guus Hiddink.
Conte, who was at the time managing Italy at the European Championships, made the most out of an arguably below-par side in France. A strong and malicious Belgium side were put to the sword by the Italian manager’s shrewd tactics.
His side appeared to be an infallible unit throughout the competition, and even in the game against Germany where they got knocked out, it was due to a pinch of misfortune. Conte played his cards perfectly and was within touching distance of knocking one of the tournament’s favourites.
The end of his international duty, saw him embark on a different path. For the first time in his illustrious managerial career, the ‘Godfather of Football’ decided to manage in the world’s most followed football league.
Conte is known to have a penchant for fielding defensive formations so as to get the most out of his players. He field a back-three in during his time at Juventus and employed similar system while coaching the national side. And, more often than not, he found success in what he did.
Many fancied him to field a back three before he was even unveiled as Chelsea boss, but given the players in the current roster, he decided his side were best suited to a 4-1-4-1.
Before the league began, Conte had surprisingly signed just two players. His first recruit as Blues manager was N’Golo Kante who moved from defending champions Leicester City for a fee of £30 million.
Then, Belgian talisman Michy Batshuayi followed the Frenchman through the door at Stamford Bridge and signed from Marseille for a reported £33 million.
Things looked to be well in place as the Blues marched to a 2-1 victory against London rivals on the opening day of the season. While it wasn’t as conclusive a win as the doctor might have ordered, it was clearly a sign that the club was headed in the right direction.
It was more of the same in the next couple of games as the Blues defeated Watford and Burnley to continue their one hundred percent start to the season. The fans too, were flying high and had already begun dreaming big.
While it was all smooth sailing on the field for the Italian’s side, he was under severe pressure off it. All summer, he had been interested in signing a quality ball-playing defender, presumably to deploy a three-man back-line, but to no avail.
Finally, he had to give in to the demands of the Chelsea board and the errant David Luiz was re-signed by the Blues, three seasons after completing a staggering £50 million switch to Paris St. Germain. Fiorentina outcast Marcos Alonso also followed Luiz to London on the final day of the window.
Truth be told, it seemed like a positive transfer window for Conte. While he could not get the exact players he would’ve hoped for, he certainly managed to fill in the positions he felt his side was lacking depth.
But, just like most new managers in England, Conte was soon handed a reality check. He saw his side struggle to cope with mid-table Swansea City and courtesy of a late Diego Costa strike, Chelsea managed to spare their blushes against Francesco Guidolin’s men.
The Blues then played host to Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool and were virtually outclassed by the Reds. Klopp’s men maintained a higher line from the outset and pegged the Chelsea defenders to maintain an extremely deeper defensive line. Not knowing how to effect a change in proceedings, Conte looked like a frustrated man down the touchline at the Bridge. Liverpool ended up winning 2-1, but could have scored a handful more if they had been slightly more clinical in front of goal.
After the Liverpool game, Chelsea were handed a footballing lesson at the hands of a ferocious Arsenal side. The Gunners ran riot over a disorganized and hapless Chelsea side as they raced into a 3-0 lead at half-time. In the second period too, the North Londoners dictated the play and did not give the Blues a hint of a chance to claw their way back into the contest.
What is the reason for the atrocities Conte is facing at the helm at Stamford Bridge? Is it fair to blame him for the side’s undoings or is there something deeper that needs to be looked in to?
The questions are so many, and the answers, very little. Conte is not suited to see his side play at such a higher tempo. His teams in the past are all suited to a ball-playing and a narrow system. The open and attacking nature of the Premier League is seeming to have become difficult for the Italian to digest.
While Conte will unarguably be held responsible for his side’s woeful run of form, the problem is in fact with the players. They seem to be a disjointed unit on the field and despite Conte continuously cheering at his men from the sideline, it virtually is having no effect on them.
In goal, Thibaut Courtois is clearly an unhappy figure who has been struggling to cope up since last season. Ahead of him he has an aged and a frail back-line who are constantly letting their side down. Bransilav Ivanovic is disappointing game after game, but it is not being dropped due to the lack of able understudies.
Cesar Azpilicueta, who is a right-back by trade has been playing on the left side of defence for the last three seasons and is arguably the only consistent performer in the Blues’ defence this season.
John Terry at 35 is still expected to play every game and that has effectively taken a toll on his fitness. Ruled out for the game against Arsenal, he watched from the sidelines as Luiz and Cahill looked like helpless at the heart of defence.
Conte has admitted to losing sleep over Chelsea’s lacklustre performances off late, and he needs to lift the dropping heads inside the dressing room. Also, it is essential for him to narrow down on a formation that suits his team and that will also generate positive results in the league.