It was the apathy around Stamford Bridge that should be most concerning to the Chelsea hierarchy.
The Blues had just drawn 1-1 with West Ham United, a result that killed off any faint hopes of finishing inside the top four. And while there were a few dissenting voices, the majority just sadly accepted the club’s Premier League season was effectively over.
Chelsea, barring an inexplicable collapse from those above, can finish fifth at best in the English top flight. Yes, they have an FA Cup semi-final to come but, as César Azpilicueta admitted, it’s nothing more than a consolation.
“The FA Cup is a massive trophy with a lot of history but it’s not enough for us,” the 28-year-old Spanish defender told BBC’s Match of the Day. “We will try to win it but the cup will not save our season.”
As is often the case with Chelsea in recent years, it’s gone very wrong very quickly. Last season the Blues clinched the Premier League title under a passionate and affable coach.
Fast forward 12 months and they are a whopping 27 points off leaders Manchester City. Antonio Conte, last year’s charmer, has cut a moody and frustrated figure since the summer.
The Italian is likely to depart at the end of this season; the Blues hoping he will leave for pastures new instead of paying out £9million in compensation for being relieved of his duties. But what has gone wrong?
Boom and bust
In 2016/17 the Blues, playing without European football, swept away the competition after Conte’s decision to switch to a back three.
They were a ruthless, efficient side. One that killed games with minimal fuss. Yet the consistent moments of brilliance that often won Chelsea games masked flaws in the team’s structure.
Last season the Blues netted 85 goals in the top flight, an impressive return. Yet their xG (expected goals), a metric which measures the quality of a shot, was just 57.8, the worst of all the top six clubs. It indicates Chelsea were finding the net with low quality opportunities time and time, and time, again.
No Premier League side outperformed their xG to such an extent and it played a big part in Chelsea winning the title. But this term their fortune in front of goal has run out and it’s exposed Conte and his side.
However, once again that is the lowest xG total of the Premier League’s elite – for context, leaders Manchester City have an xG of 66.8.
“I’ve repeated this many times and I’m getting bored,” Conte said after the draw with West Ham. “You are listening always to the same reason – not clinical.”
The former Juventus boss has a point but the numbers suggest his side are simply not as good as many thought last season. They won the title through moments of individual brilliance and defensive resilience. Now that both have dwindled Chelsea are proving to be nothing special.
Conte must accept some of the blame. Tactically his side haven’t been as well-drilled this season, perhaps a consequence of having to compete in the Champions League. But his negative aura hasn’t helped, neither has his desire to distance himself from admittedly mediocre signings.
Shaping the future
When Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea in the summer of 2003 he made sweeping changes on and off the field and turned the Blues from top four hopefuls into title challengers.
Such a transformation isn’t required almost 15 years on, but there is little doubt the club needs an overhaul when this season drifts to an unfulfilling end. And who replaces Conte is perhaps the biggest decision of all.
Under Abramovich Chelsea have gone through several managers, 12 to be exact – although José Mourinho and Guus Hiddink had two spells and the latter was only ever an interim appointment.
The majority of these coaches, rightly, focused on little more than a season at a time. Win and stay. Fail and depart. It created a short-term culture at Stamford Bridge with head coaches going with the tried and trusted instead of taking risks, even when form unravelled.
Conte is the latest to fall into this cycle, but it’s one the Blues must break this summer. Whoever they appoint needs to be given time and an assurance that if they are unable to guide Chelsea into the top four next season, or even the next, they won’t be moved on.
Tottenham, as much as it will pain Blues fans to admit, have to be the blueprint. Under Mauricio Pochettino Spurs have allowed a young and talented squad to flourish. Players have been able to make mistakes and learn from them. And now they have – barring a shocking end to the season – qualified for the Champions League in three consecutive years.
They haven’t won anything in that time and it’s a stick that has been used to beat Pochettino with. However, there’s been constant progression and development within the side. Given the resources Chelsea have in terms of talented young players, it is something they should strive to emulate.
Tammy Abraham, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Mason Mount and several other members of the club’s loan army deserve to be given an opportunity. If they fail then so be it. But given their natural ability and success at youth levels there’s a nagging feeling that when given their chance and trusted by the right coach, they can all shine.
And Chelsea have the ideal opportunity to clear out the ‘deadwood’ in their squad. David Luiz and Gary Cahill, both fine servants, have just one year remaining on their contracts. As do Cesc Fàbregas, Pedro and Thibaut Courtois.
Of that quartet only the latter is under 30 and given his constant harking about moving back to Spain in the future, the Blues may opt to cash instead of risking him leaving in 2019 as a free agent.
The culture shock
All of the above would take a season, likely longer, to bear fruit. Chelsea’s fans would need to accept that. They’ve become accustomed to winning trophies since Abramovich arrived in west London and a drought wouldn’t be welcomed.
However, the Blues’ success under their Russian owner was built on a core group of players who will go down as several of the club’s greatest. Chelsea, in their current guise, do not have the same personalities nor talent to sustain dominance.
It’s why a reboot is required. In order to thrive in the future the Blues must make radical changes. And soon.