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Roberto Pereyra scored a 91st minute goal and 11th-place Watford completed a 4-1 route of Chelsea, their second straight three-goal loss. The previous loss came to ninth-place Bournemouth, leaving Chelsea in fourth place. They now hold just a one-point lead over city rivals Tottenham. After that, there’s just a five-point drop to Arsenal for last Champions League spot.
The team that led the league from week 11 to finish last season and won 30 of 38 matches is now in danger of missing out on the top four. Last season only one Chelsea loss came outside the top six. This season they have lost five such games with 12 fixtures remaining on the schedule.
This Chelsea team is much different from the one that won the championship. Manager Antonio Conte’s lineups vs. Bournemouth and at Watford featured six and four different starters, respectively, from the one that finished last season.
Willian and David Luiz have each missed the last three matches due to injury. However, Conte saw John Terry and Diego Costa as past their prime and transferred them to Aston Villa and Atlético Madrid, respectively.
But both have thrived with their new teams after what weren’t bad years in south London. Costa scored his most goals with Chelsea, and already has three in one month at Atleti. Terry captained the team to three top three finishes in four years before Conte inexplicably phased him out last season. He now captains an Aston Villa team that is contending for promotion.
After losing Willian and Costa, two of their four most prolific goal scorers last season, Chelsea has lost some of its identity. They still play Conte’s coveted three at the back formation that revolutionized the Premier League, but are on pace to score just 67 goals compared to 85 last season. The defense has held up, however, on pace to allow 34 goals, just one more than 2016-17.
Costa’s replacement, Álvaro Morata, is six off the pace, and Eden Hazard is four off his pace from last season. This problem continues through the team as almost every player is just off of last season’s production. One cannot expect every player to perform at title-winning form, but this big a disparity shows some sort of problem in the coaching or selection of players.
It is a little absurd to expect a 25 year-old who has never scored more than 15 goals in a top-flight league to come up with a 20+ goal season. What’s more, Morata was transitioning from the Real Madrid attack that had just won back to back Champions League titles.
The other big change is the replacement of Nemanja Matic with Temoue Bakayoko. The 23 year-old may be a great deep-lying midfielder in a few years, but right now he is nowhere near the player that Matic was.
These two signings of young players in favor of stars that had been at the club may speak to a problem for Antonio Conte. The Italian manager used to head up Juventus. Nevertheless, he has never dealt with a team with the riches of Chelsea or the expectations of Abramovich. He may have led them to a title in his first season, but the question now is if he can retain Champions League play.
On a team as big as Chelsea and in an era of soccer in which teams are as volatile as they are in 2018, there is bound to be turnover. For that reason, working the transfer market is a major skill. Without a director of football at the helm, Conte has almost full autonomy. He has chosen to develop young players instead of going for big stars to fill the voids of Costa and Matic.
While that may work out in the long run, the goal in this industry is always to win now. If Conte lets Tottenham or Arsenal slip into the Champions League ahead of Chelsea, he has failed at that goal. At the end of last season it was impossible to imagine Chelsea might lose their forward-thinking Italian manager. But barring a late push led by new signing Olivier Giroud, Chelsea could be out of the Champions league. And Conte could be out of a job.
Photo Credit: Nazionale Calcio/Flickr C.C. 2.0