The opening weekend of the season may be too early to talk of a crisis, but the mood music around Stamford Bridge is not good and Saturday’s humiliation by Burnley was not out of character from a club that has appeared dysfunctional since before becoming champions last May.
The rift between coach Antonio Conte and his star striker Diego Costa, which surfaced at the start of the year, was the first sign that all was not harmonious at Chelsea.
Next came doubts about Conte’s own future. Would he stay or go? He eventually signed a new contract, for more money but not for a longer term.
Then this summer has seen a succession of thinly-veiled complaints from the manager about the club’s transfer activity, with Conte unhappy to miss out on Romelu Lukaku and even less happy with the sale of Nemanja Matic to Manchester United.
Three players have been signed at huge cost — Alvaro Morata, Tiemouoe Bakayoko, and Antonio Rudiger — but only the latter made the starting line-up against Burnley.
Add to the mix an injury to player of the season Eden Hazard, and the unfortunate habit of losing players to suspension because of a rash of red cards, and suddenly the home of the champions looks vulnerable.
Sean Dyche certainly thought so, especially after he saw a team sheet containing rookie forward Jeremie Boga making his debut ahead of Morata, the €75m striker left on the subs’ bench.
With four other untried youngsters alongside Morata as substitutes, it smacked of a coded message from Conte to Roman Abramovich. ‘Look how thin our squad is!’
Conte strenuously denied that afterwards, maintaining he always picks the best side available to win any game, but it appeared as if he was cutting off his nose to spite his face.
Whatever the reason, it backfired dramatically as Chelsea’s gameplan went out of the window once Gary Cahill was sent off for a studs-up lunge on Steven Defour in the 14th minute, and an impressive Burnley side took full advantage of the chaos, racing to a three-goal lead by half-time through two goals from Sam Vokes and a brilliant solo effort from Stephen Ward.
Morata made a belated Premier League debut in the 58th minute and scored soon afterwards, but cost his side a goal by poking home Andreas Christensen’s goalbound shot from an offside position. Cesc Fabregas then got a second yellow card for himself and a second red for his team, and David Luiz’s late volley was not enough to prevent an embarrassing start to the season.
Next stop is Tottenham at their new Wembley home next week, with key players missing through suspension and injury, and Conte knows the price of failure at Stamford Bridge is high. Abramovich sacked both Jose Mourinho — twice — and Carlo Ancelotti the season after they won the title. Just like Mourinho two years ago, Conte is excusing himself from responsibility for the club’s failings in the transfer market, saying: “The club is doing the work, trying to do its best in the transfer market. I am a coach.
“Now the season has started my focus is just on the pitch and working with my players. This is my squad and this is my team and I want to fight with these players.”
He has plenty on his hands to get a fit and firing squad ready to face Spurs, although that was the last thing on his mind on Saturday night.
“Now there is great disappointment about this result and I’m not thinking for the next game yet, but for sure we have one week to try to find the right solution.
“It will be a really tough game, but we must be ready and have the same will, the same desire to fight as the second half (against Burnley). I think we have to restart from there.”
Chelsea have been hindered by their unfortunate habit of getting red cards in big games, from Victor Moses in the FA Cup final, Pedro in last week’s Community Shield, to yesterday’s double. All were justified, despite Conte hinting at a conspiracy, just as Mourinho did so often. “I don’t see another team who, for three games in a row, finish with 10 or nine men. It’s very difficult to find this type of situation, this statistic. It’s right to see if it is the fault of the players or not, or if the decision of the referee is good or not. It was very strange.”
Conte thrives on the training ground, but it may be psychology rather than physiology or tactics that will be most important in the coming days.
“We have to continue to work and try to improve the negative situation. In every game there are positives and negative situations, and my task is to improve the negatives. I’m not worried because it’s normal, as it is during a game to have different situations, positive and negative. It’s important for me we don’t close our eyes, and instead focus on our mistakes and to try to improve.”
Asked if he is happy, he shot back: “About what? I think we have to work and put all of ourselves into our job. If you do this every day then you must be happy. Sometimes the result can be good but the most important thing is that I am seeing the right will and the right commitment from my players to try to improve. It’s the same for my staff. We have to put 120% into every match. I must be the first and then my players.”
Unsurprisingly Sean Dyche was much more upbeat, having matched Burnley’s total of away victories last season.
Despite the big-money transfers of defender Michael Keane and striker Andre Gray, Burnley look a better side than last season, and Dyche is proud of their team spirit and ethos, in contrast to a Chelsea side that lost their heads in adversity.
“There’s a calmness, a good humble edge to our group, and we insist upon that,” he said.
“I thought we did well mentally to see the game through, and won deservedly in the end. It doesn’t make our season complete, because it’s the first game. But it’s great for the fans.”
Chelsea 2 - Burnley 3
Courtois 6; Rudiger 6, Luiz 6, Cahill 4; Azpilicueta 6, Fabregas 6, Kante 6, Alonso 7; Willian 7, Batshuayi 5 (Morata 58), Boga 5 (Christensen 18 (Musonda 89).
Subs not used:
Caballero, Kenedy, Tomori, Scott.
Heaton 8; Lowton 7, Tarkowski 8, Mee 7, Ward 7; Defour 8 (Walters 75), Cork 7, Hendrick 7, Gudmondsson 6 (Arfield 75), Brady 7; Vokes 8.
Subs not used:
Pope, Taylor, Barnes, Westwood, Long.
C Pawson 7.
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