Lessons generally aren’t learned from friendly matches, but perhaps Sunday’s Community Shield betrayed a weakness in Chelsea which can no longer be denied.
Antonio Conte’s team didn’t play well at Wembley and defeat on penalties flattered a performance which was for long periods clunky, lethargic and dull. Arsenal were brighter and better; by the time Sead Kolasanic equalised, the result should really have been beyond doubt.
At this time of year, it’s easy to dismiss defeats. Eden Hazard remains injured, new signings Alvaro Morata and Antonio Rudiger aren’t quite ready to start, and Tiemoue Bakayoko – signed to fill a pivotal role in Conte’s midfield – is recovering from knee trouble. There are definitely excuses there for those who want to use them.
The backdrop to the summer has been the uneasy truce between Conte and his employers. He, quite vocally at times, has expressed dismay over the failure to strengthen the first-team. Given Chelsea’s wealth and comparative strength, it’s tempting to dismiss that as an empty grievance and another case of a big-club manager always wanting more.
But actually, doesn’t he have a point? His hopes of retaining the title, or mounting a serious challenge in Europe, seem dependent on all of his players avoiding injury and suspension and none of them losing form at any point or for any length of time.
Chelsea are defending champions for a reason and, no, they are not short on quality. What they do lack perhaps, is the ability to rotate away from their established strengths. Conte has succeeded in creating a disciplined and organised side, but that rigidity is now potentially problematic; teams who win in the same way each week tend to have a short lifespan at the top of the game.
In their last two defeats to Arsenal, Chelsea have had a man sent-off. In the FA Cup final and on Sunday, the dismissals of Victor Moses and Pedro helped to determine the outcome of the respective game. It would be disingenuous to pretend, though, that the final outcome in each case wasn’t reflective of the balance of play – and, while emblematic of anything as dramatic as a power shift, it does describe Wenger’s growing ability to nullify Conte’s team.
In the past – under Mourinho, for instance – Chelsea have always seemed a step ahead of Arsenal. That owes something to tactical flexibility, of course, but also to the players within those squads. In the war of resources, one team always had more than the other – better players, but also many more ways of pursuing victory.
Now, that balance has turned – in relation to Arsenal and beyond. As a result, Conte is fighting a battle on two fronts: he must counter the growing understanding for how his team has won in the past with innovation. But he must find that innovation using a small group of players who offer little variation upon each other.
The wing-back situation at Stamford Bridge is the most vivid example of that conundrum: either Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses play, or the team suffers. At the same time, the rest of the Premier League has become well-versed on those players’ traits and, by now, has total knowledge of how Chelsea use them. Had the club managed to sign Alex Sandro from Juventus – something they might still do – their hand would be far stronger than it currently is. Given how important that position was to last season’s success and the extra strain which will be applied by Champions League involvement, the failure to properly buttress it is difficult to understand.
Troublingly, there are shades of the same problem further forward. Conte may have more bodies at the top of the pitch, but few players who are capable of altering a gameplan. Willian and Pedro, for instance, may make contrasting runs without the ball, but aren’t nearly as different as – say – Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Juan Mata at Manchester United, or Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling at Manchester City. Modern football, particularly in the attacking zones, depends on dexterity and, within that context, Chelsea are actually some way behind their nearest rivals.
In midfield, too, the sale of Nemanja Matic has made the pool of attributes more shallow. Cesc Fabregas can, even at this stage of his career, be expected to enter a game from the bench and find a pass which opens a defence, but Conte will again have to lean heavily on N’Golo Kante and hope that Bakayoko adjusts to English football without breaking stride.
It’s a strange assessment of a team who won the title so convincingly just a few months ago, but the concern is justified; their position is precarious.
Arsenal’s victory at Wembley can’t be ascribed to a single factor and nor, with a week of pre-season remaining, should it be treated as a signpost for the year ahead. It did, however, draw an unflattering comparison between a side equipped with a variety of wrinkles and intricacies and one which, with the transfer window slowly closing, seems dependent on the same pieces being moved around the board in exactly the same way.