This has been coming: Chelsea are paying the price for a baffling transfer window
After a tough evening in Rome, Chelsea are starting to look like what they are - a team with one of the thinnest squads in Europe. And it's not going to get any easier... writes Pete Sharland.
If one moment perfectly encapsulated Chelsea’s shambolic 3-0 defeat at Roma on Tuesday evening then surely it was when Edin Dzeko, having chased a long ball down the right, turned and saw Diego Perotti wandering into the Chelsea penalty area completely unmarked.
Perotti wasn’t sprinting but nor was he walking, he was just calmly making his way into the box, completely alone save for Thibaut Courtois. The reason being that not one, not two, but all three of Chelsea’s central defenders had decided they were going to go out to jockey Dzeko. In what has to go down as one of the most embarrassing bits of defending in recent times at Chelsea, Antonio Rudiger, David Luiz and Cesar Azpilicueta all charged over to Dzeko like hyperactive puppies.
Roma's Bosnian striker Edin Dzeko (C) vies with Chelsea's Spanish defender Cesar Azpilicueta during the UEFA Champions League football match AS Roma vs Chelsea on October 31, 2017 at the Olympic Stadium in Rome.Getty Images
That Perotti managed to blaze it over, and Courtois made an excellent point-blank save to deny Kostas Manolas late on, will leave this as just the joint-worst result for Chelsea under Conte, rather than the full-blown disaster which it could well have been.
Make no mistake, Roma were excellent. Eusebio Di Francesco got his tactics spot on. His midfield three of Radja Nainggolan, Kevin Strootman and Daniele De Rossi easily over-powered Tiemoue Bakayoko and Cesc Fabregas whilst Perotti and Stephan El Shaarawy were superb buzzing just off Dzeko. Chelsea had one excellent chance when Pedro charged down a clearance and it fell to Morata only for the Spaniard to blaze over from a few yards. However apart from that Chelsea were mostly restricted to long shots as Roma countered freely.
Chelsea can point to the absence of N’Golo Kante, with some suggesting (somewhat ludicrously) on social media that he should start against Manchester United on Sunday regardless of the state of his hamstring, but this is a deeper, structural issue.
Stephan El Shaarawy celebrates after scoring against Chelsea.Getty Images
There have been few surprises from Antonio Conte since Chelsea’s other dark day in his reign, when they found themselves 3-0 down at half-time to an Arsenal side that eventually finished outside the top four. He radically altered the formation and since then it has been very simple. Everyone knows what the formation is and everyone knows that they are going to be drilled hard in training to make sure they know exactly what they’re doing on the pitch.
The problem this season is that Conte has had less time to work with his players and has had more games to manage. Reports vary on whether he’s adjusted his training levels but regardless the real issue is how thin his squad is.
The failure to sign a left wing-back, a back-up striker and even another midfielder of sufficient quality to go with Bakayoko looks naïve now, but surely it has to be even more baffling that these types of players were actually allowed to leave? Nathan Ake, Kurt Zouma, Ola Aina, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Nathaniel Chalobah, Jeremie Boga and Tammy Abraham all left either permanently or on loan and all could have played a part in Chelsea’s season.
Tammy Abraham celebratesGetty Images
Instead Chelsea left themselves a squad with just 17 first-team outfielders along with youngsters Kenedy, Charly Musonda and Ethan Ampadu. Where to apportion blame is tricky to say but Ake, Chalobah and Dominic Solanke will certainly not be the last players to leave Chelsea because they feel there is no obvious pathway to the first team. The incredible turnover of managers means no man in the dugout ever feels confident enough to properly trust young players save for a few token appearances.
Six players joined Chelsea this summer. 26 left. Even factoring in the infamous ‘loan army’ and those who were sold having barely ever played, that is worrying for a squad that was looking to defend its Premier League title and have a crack at the Champions League.
Chelsea were incredibly lucky with injuries last season, but already the likes of Victor Moses, Kante, Eden Hazard and Alvaro Morata have suffered knocks of varying seriousness. The problem now is how many change will Conte make for the weekend assuming Kante isn’t fit? One? Maybe two? It’s simply asking too much for these players given the demands of Conte’s style and English football in general.
Antonio Conte Getty Images
Now, with a thin squad picking up injuries, Conte has to try and manage the situation as best he can until January when reinforcements can be called upon.
But he is not without blame. Putting Pedro at right wing-back when chasing the game instead of moving to a back four cost them the third goal and he has to address the incredible lack of fight within his squad. The way they rolled over and allowed Roma to dominate them was remarkable. This is a team that steamrollered their way to the title last season in bullish fashion, a team that shrugged off a terrible season the year before to derail their rival's title hopes. This was weak and timid, and perhaps that will hurt Conte most of all. He and his players need to stand up and be counted.
The problem is where will those voices come from? Kante and Hazard are truly exceptional footballers but neither are big leaders. The days of Cech, Terry, Lampard and Drogba are gone. Cahill is declining rapidly and Luiz has troubles of his own. Azpilicueta is Chelsea's Mr Consistent but he cannot do it all on his own. Cesc Fabregas can show fight but he looks so off the pace in a two-man midfield that he cannot be considered.
Whoever it comes from, be it Conte or someone in the dressing room, Chelsea need someone to galvanise them, and fast. They are not out of the woods, not by a long shot. It’s going to be a tough winter and they have to be ready for the fight.