The sense of malaise set in almost as soon as the blue ribbons had been tied on the Premier League trophy at the end of last season. Chelsea had only just been crowned champions when reports of Antonio Conte’s disgruntlement at the club started to surface. From that point on, the bounce was gone from the Italian’s hair, the spirit gone from his character.
No matter which way it is examined, Chelsea have endured a peculiar season. Never before has a sense of pessimism afflicted a team defending a league title so early in the campaign. There was never any real belief that the Blues could retain their Premier League crown this season. The sense of fatalism was overwhelming from the start.
Now, Conte is living on borrowed time at Stamford Bridge. He will almost certainly leave Chelsea at the end of the season, if he even gets that far without being sacked. Speculation is already swirling over who will replace the former Juventus and Italian national team manager, with Maurizio Sarri, Thomas Tuchel and Luis Enrique all linked with the job in recent weeks.
But Chelsea’s problems won’t be fixed solely by the appointment of a new manager. Of course, the Blues have long been the exception to the rule that state stability provides the best basis for success at a football club. Since Roman Abramovich’s takeover back in 2003, Chelsea have won more trophies than any other English club and they have done so going against the grain of conventional wisdom.
There are fundamental issues for Chelsea to address this summer, though. There is a culture at Stamford Bridge that needs to be eradicated and the appointment of a new manager won’t do that alone. This is something that must come from the top. This is something that must be coordinated by whoever eventually replaces Michael Emenalo as the club’s technical director, with the role still vacant at present.
That vacancy presents Chelsea with an opportunity to reshape the club, to overhaul the team and to instil a new mentality in a dressing room that has lost its way over the past year. This is a group of players who need coaching to within an inch of their lives to achieve anything. The best teams have the capacity to work out problems for themselves on the pitch, when the manager can only watch on from the touchline.
But this Chelsea team doesn’t have this capacity, as demonstrated by a number of their performances this season. As a consequence of Chelsea’s managerial record, these players have grown accustomed to a new coach pitching every two seasons or so. This has resulted in them easing off after a certain period of time under one manager. It happened to Jose Mourinho and it has happened to Conte this season. That is no coincidence and while the two men like to distance themselves from each other, but there is more linking their respective demises than they are willing to admit.
In the grand scheme of things, it matters little whether Chelsea manage to secure a place in the FA Cup final against Southampton this weekend. The Premier League is much sharper gauge of where Chelsea are as a team right now and they currently sit slumped in fifth place. They are a team and a club in desperate need of a new direction.
They need leaders, not just in the dugout and as technical director, but on the pitch too. This, as we see them now, is a faceless Chelsea side, a far cry from the team that once saw John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba act as on-field lieutenants. Right now, they are a side without fibre.
And without an overarching philosophy, without a style of play. In truth, they have been without this since Mourinho’s exit midway through the 2015/16 season. Conte achieved great success in his first season in England, but he used what Mourinho left him to base his own achievements off. Chelsea have ran that style of play as far as it can go. Their issue is a cultural one as much as it’s a sporting one.
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