Chelsea came from behind to beat Watford 4-2 at Stamford Bridge on Saturday. The Premier League champions are certainly wobbling but the resolve remains strong, writes Adam Bate.
When Roberto Pereyra put Watford ahead early in the second half at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea were facing the prospect of a third consecutive Premier League defeat for only the second time this century. The previous occasion had come in November 2015 when Chelsea were also champions. Jose Mourinho was gone the following month.
In other words, Chelsea fans know how this story usually ends. Having only finished outside of the top three twice in 14 years, this is not a club that tolerates mediocrity. Both of those managers failed to last the season. Claudio Ranieri and Carlo Ancelotti even paid the price for finishing second. It is no media myth to suggest that Conte is under pressure.
While the problems are nowhere near as bad as two years ago, there are certain similarities. Confidence appears fragile and the famed defensive solidity has disappeared. Chelsea went on a run of six Premier League clean sheets in a row last October. They have now conceded two each to Crystal Palace and Watford either side of letting in three at home to Roma.
The key difference is that it does not appear to have broken these players. Just as they did against Atletico Madrid last month, Chelsea came from behind to win. Substitutes Davide Zappacosta and Willian combined for Cesar Azpilicueta’s winner, while Michy Batshuayi also came off the bench to score twice either side of that goal. Conte’s relief was palpable.
“They showed great character,” Jamie Redknapp told Sky Sports. “Anyone thinking the players aren’t playing for him, of course they are. They were right at it. But do not underestimate what a big result that was for Chelsea. They needed it badly.” It is a huge consolation for Conte but as a perfectionist with high demands, he will know issues remain.
There are so many areas in which Chelsea are struggling for their best form that it would be difficult to know where to start were it not for the fact that Conte himself has provided us with a running commentary. The concerns were apparent even before the season began as attempts to bring in more players to bolster the squad were thwarted.
More recently, that smaller squad has manifested itself not just in terms of their injury problems but also in affecting the team’s style of play. “You must consider the fatigue in the legs of your players,” said Conte in explaining the recent 1-0 home defeat to Manchester City in which Chelsea were outworked and outplayed.
“It is impossible to press box to box because after 30 minutes you have no energy to continue. You have to consider two tactical aspects. Either you go very high to press and play a game of great intensity but you must do this for the whole game. In the other case, you must be disciplined and try to close the space.”
As a result, Chelsea’s approach is being dictated by fitness levels rather than what would otherwise be the best way to win. “I did not like the type of football that we did for a lot of the game,” Conte admitted after seeing Roma get the better of a 3-3 draw in midweek. “We totally lost our style of football,” he added.
The changes to the side certainly seem to have disrupted Chelsea’s rhythm. Antonio Rudiger was in the team against Watford and given that Azpilicueta had previously pointed to the fact that the title-winning back three had “different qualities that complement each other” it is tempting to wonder whether that balance has been lost in defence.
But in the defeat against Crystal Palace, Conte went with last season’s back five and they still looked shaky. “The balance was poor,” he said afterwards. Perhaps it is the lack of protection afforded by N’Golo Kante that is more significant. “To lose a player like Kante is not simple because he’s able to cover a lot of the pitch,” added Conte.
Conte praised Chelsea’s desire after they came from behind to beat Watford
Tiemoue Bakayoko was unable to fulfil that remit against Watford, covering only 10.8 kilometres – less than Kante has in any game this season. He passed the ball sloppily too. At least Kante will return. Nemanja Matic is gone for good and while there were those at Chelsea relatively underwhelmed by his efforts, the Serb has clearly been missed.
Problems to address then, but with Premier League games against strugglers Everton and Bournemouth coming up, there is a chance for Chelsea to battle through this difficult period. They remain fourth in the table. Crucially for Conte, there is enough evidence to suggest that these players remain motivated to play for their manager too.