Ever since Manchester United won their eighteenth title in 2008-09, which was their third successive title in as many seasons, the Premier League title has been very difficult to defend. Manchester United came close to repeating the hat-trick of three titles in three years between 2010-11 and 2012-13, but the 2011-12 title was snatched away from them in injury time on the last match day of the season by their neighbors.
Since that run from the Red Devils, none of the title winning teams have come close to defending their title in the immediate next season. But given the magic that Antonio Conte worked at Juventus – winning three Scudettos consecutively between 2011-12 and 2013-14 – Chelsea fans could be forgiven for expecting a stronger title defense this season. But the fashion in which their team has started the 2017-18 season, I am sure they cannot fathom what kind of title defense are the Blues going to mount.
Chelsea’s season so far has been a roller-coaster of off-the-field dramas, unexpected defeats, and some solid wins. Let us take a look at how the last season’s Champions have been doing – both on field and off it – in the first three months of this Premier League season.
Chelsea did not have a great summer transfer window or a good preseason. Rumors of a rift between Abramovich and Conte kept surfacing throughout the summer and were exacerbated by the apparent lack of big money transfers from the Blues. Alvaro Morata was the only big name signing, which was in a way necessitated by the public fallout between Antonio Conte and Diego Costa last January. Other than Morata, David Luiz, and Bakayoko, there were no major signings, who could have helped Conte to mount a stouter defense of the title. On the top of that, Chelsea sold Nemanja Matic to archrivals Manchester United. Such a summer window indeed hurt the thin Chelsea squad, especially in the midfield.
On the Field
Whatever Antonio Conte and the Chelsea fans expected in the season after their title win, they did not expect the Blues to lose Premier League matches to Burnley and Crystal Palace. For that matter, they would not have expected Chelsea to lose to Manchester City as well. But the Blues have had to deal with those three losses in their first eleven games of the Premier League season. They currently sit fourth in the table at 22 points after 11 games, three points ahead of fellow-top-four rivals Liverpool and Arsenal. Chelsea’s record reads as 11 played, 7 won, 1 drawn, and 3 losses. But it was not all doom and gloom. Those seven wins included wins over Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur.
In the Champions League as well, the story is similar. Chelsea have beaten Qarabag and Athletico Madrid soundly but were also beaten very well by Roma, who also held them to a draw at Stamford Bridge. Given Athletico’s dip in form, it is not difficult for Chelsea to qualify for the Round of 16 but the results against Roma could mean a more difficult draw in that round.
Of their 19 goals (PL) this season, Morata has scored 7 and assisted three. The other 12 goals have been shared by several other players, with none of them scoring more than two. Despite the reverses mentioned above, Chelsea’s ELO rating has improved slightly this season – improving to 1919 now from 1907 at the start of the season. According to ClubElo, Chelsea are forecasted to finish third with 77 points this season.
The Blues have an xG of 13.77 this season but have scored 19, while their xG Against has been 10.64 this season, which is in line with the 10 goals they have conceded thus far. Looking at these numbers and projections, it does not feel that Chelsea have initiated their title defense as badly as Leicester did last season or they themselves did in 2015-16. But still there is a pall of gloom at Stamford Bridge – possibly due the off-field tensions.
As this ESPN FC piece enumerates, Conte’s reign at Chelsea has been full of disagreements and spats. Most notable and harmful this season have been his rift with Chelsea’s owners and his fallout with Diego Costa.
Conte felt that he was sold short in the summer transfer window, while the army of Chelsea youngsters and fringe players remained on loan. This feeling could have led to the increase in tensions between Conte and Abramovich. These tensions seem to have bubbled over and resulted in the departure of the Technical Director Michael Emenola this Monday.
With Costa, the trouble started in January, but the pair mended their differences and focused on winning the title. After winning it though, Conte was clear (and short perhaps) in letting Costa know that he was not in his future plans. Costa went AWOL despite being contracted to the Blues and Chelsea were understaffed in the striking department till Morata and Batshuayi found their forms.
Add to these, the running feud between Conte and Jose Mourinho and the new rift between Conte and his star defender David Luiz, and we are talking about a manager who could be highly distracted with these rifts, fights and events.
The Road to Christmas
November and December are terribly busy times in the Premier League and it is no different for Chelsea who are scheduled to play eleven matches between 18th November and 23rd December. The only benefit Chelsea have over others – say Manchester United – is that barring Liverpool, they have played all other top-six contenders in the league. So, while the games are coming thick and fast for Chelsea, they are mostly against bottom-half teams or teams in underwhelming form (Athletico Madrid).
By the time the 19th game week comes by on Boxing Day, Chelsea should have settled into a more regular rhythm of winning like a defending champion. For that to happen, Chelsea needs their manager to resolve some of the off-field conflicts, indulge in some management with his truculent players and remove all distractions. If he is able to achieve that, and if his team performs slightly better than they are doing these days, then Chelsea should be able to beat their third-place projections (from ClubElo and FiveThirtyEight both) and compete for the title instead. That would be a title defense reminiscent of Sir Alex Ferguson’s last few seasons.