History suggests that Chelsea’s title defence is already over
Despite a just-about win over Watford, Conte’s struggling side need a quick turnaround
Under pressure: Chelsea manager Antonio Conte. Photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA
With 20 minutes remaining at Stamford Bridge on Saturday, thoughts ticked back to two years ago. Chelsea were also defending champions then, had a manager under pressure and had begun to lose games through fragility and carelessness. Everything was starting to feel quite familiar against Watford, but with a spot of luck and a couple of well-placed substitutions, Chelsea went from 2-1 down to 4-2 up and Antonio Conte felt comfortable enough to offer a wave to the fans singing his name.
Before that point those chants felt like moral support rather than a celebration of him or his team. Chelsea were heading towards their third league defeat in a row, their fourth game in all competitions without a win and a sense of disquiet was rippling around the stadium. Conte’s side had been given something of a going-over by Watford, a team that look absolutely horrible to play against. They are physical, occasionally dirty, but never leave their opponents alone and their passing is crisp and confident. For long spells they were better than their expensively assembled opponents.
What to make of Chelsea’s recent run? After the game Conte was keen to make plenty of the fact they had shown “heart” to rally after going behind, and the big difference between this team and the one that melted so flamboyantly under José Mourinho in 2015 is that side would have folded in similar circumstances. Then again, they have forced themselves into the position where they have to show that heart and come back from assorted deficits. They have been behind in the last five games, six in all this season, half of the matches they have played: for a point of reference, last season they trailed in 13 of 47 matches. Mopping up a mess is good but it is much better not to spill the wine on the carpet in the first place.
Team of contrasts
This is a team of contrasts, one that is fragile enough to concede five goals in two games against Roma in the Champions League and Watford, but robust enough to come from behind and not lose either. It seems appropriate that Michy Batshuayi has scored his most significant goals after coming off the bench: against West Bromwich last season, Atlético Madrid this term and now a brace against Watford. He, like Chelsea, is good when panic stations are imminent but not quite so hot from the start.
This was a win but it would be foolish to pretend all was well. Had Richarlison converted one of the chances presented to him on the most welcoming of plates, we would be discussing Conte’s position with more earnestness. That talk, despite the Italian claiming he was not worried by the sack, is clearly preying on his mind. When asked an unrelated question about whether under previous managers Chelsea would have folded, Conte brought up his position. “I am not like the previous managers,” he said. “I am different. The club has to judge the work and honestly, I don’t have this type of worry. In the past the club decided after two losses or three bad games to sack a manager. I don’t think it is the same for every manager. You change the person, change the work. I repeat. If you ask if I feel this type of pressure about the club, it is zero.”
A collective failure
Part of Chelsea’s problem is their defence. Against Watford it was easily pulled here and there, spaces created partly by smart movement but partly through a lack of concentration and positional carelessness.
“It’s difficult to explain,” said Gary Cahill. “Put it this way: against Roma I felt the work-rate was there but the intensity was slightly off. Last year we were closing down all the way and rushing decisions from opponents. I’d say collectively we were doing things better last season but that’s why you work on the training pitch.”
Therein lies the rub. The relentlessness of their fixture list means those weaknesses expand and cannot be worked upon. Conte tried to put a positive spin on another midweek appointment, the game against Everton in the Carabao Cup on Wednesday providing a chance for youngsters to get a run, but it is clear he would rather be at Cobham, ironing out problems.
“If I have to see it in a selfish way, I can tell you I agree,” he said when asked if he concurred with his managerial contemporaries that the competition was little more than a nuisance.
History suggests Chelsea’s title defence is over. No team have ever lost three of their opening eight games and gone on to win the Premier League. They did not lose their third game until January last season. In 2014-15, it was May. A defeat to Watford and they would have been 12 points shy of Manchester City with less than a quarter of the campaign gone. But if they can come from behind in games like this, perhaps they can manage it over the season.