Rewind to July and Antonio Conte was warning Chelsea about the dangers of a “Mourinho season”. In different ways, he seems to be avoiding that.
Jose Mourinho has mounted different title defences as Chelsea manager. He retained the crown in 2005-06. A decade later, he was dismissed after Chelsea had slumped to 16th.
Conte has steered clear of the two extremes. Chelsea host Mourinho’s Manchester United on Sunday in fourth place. But they do so after a 3-0 defeat to Roma, the joint heaviest loss of his reign, which prompted the manager to say that they need to rediscover their hunger.
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So instead of a “Mourinho season”, what they may be having is an “Ancelotti season”, culminating in the sacking of an Italian manager who had won the title in a glorious first campaign but whose players failed to maintain such standards in the sophomore year.
There are common denominators, from issues caused by recruitment to inconsistency, but if Carlo Ancelotti was too relaxed, Conte may be too intense.
Chelsea endured a summer of discontent which has spilled over onto the pitch. Bad-tempered against Burnley, anaemic against Roma. They have mixed great highs – beating Atletico Madrid in the Wanda Metropolitano and Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley – with the sort of lows they rarely experienced in the final eight months of last season.
The most steadfast side of all have become mercurial. And, in the process, very unlike a typical Conte team.
Perhaps it is a reaction. Conte’s relentlessly repetitive training drills did not meet with universal approval, but dissent was muted last season as Chelsea were prospering. Then, shorn of European commitments, they had continuity of selection, the freshness generated by midweek rests and a winning habit.
There are other reasons for their decidedly mixed fortunes. Conte saw the title win as a springboard. A more budget-conscious club were less ambitious in the transfer market.
They still spent £180 million (Dh877m), but recouped much of it. Of the arrivals, only Alvaro Morata and, potentially, Tiemoue Bakayoko are from the top rank; the others bore the look of squad players.
Selling Nemanja Matic was a fiscally sound decision that weakened them in the short term. They missed out on some A-list targets like Leonardo Bonucci and Alex Sandro plus men such as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Fernando Llorente who might have made a difference in bit-part roles.
A byword for unchanged teams has been disrupted by suspensions, depriving them of Gary Cahill, Cesc Fabregas and David Luiz, and injuries, removing Morata, Bakayoko, Eden Hazard, Victor Moses, Danny Drinkwater and, perhaps most crucially, N’Golo Kante.
They have lacked the requisite strength in depth, becoming over-reliant on their star men. Hazard and Morata have won games when they have been at their best. When they haven’t, faultlines have been exposed.
Chelsea had an insurance policy last season, a defence that was ultra-dependable after the September switch to 3-4-2-1. Some of that reliability has gone. Antonio Rudiger produced an error-riddled display against Roma. Luiz has reverted to type at times.
Nor has Conte’s decision-making been as flawless. He has had spectacular successes, using Luiz in midfield against Spurs and playing a 3-5-1-1 away at Atletico but gambits that have backfired: selecting the Brazilian in midfield in the home leg against Roma and playing 3-5-1-1 again, for instance, or using that shape in the home setback to Manchester City.
It has all contributed to a stop-start season. Defeat to United might mark a definitive end to their title bid if it is accompanied by a City win over Arsenal. It is no wonder Thibaut Courtois branded Sunday’s match a must-win affair.
Yet the evidence of Chelsea’s campaign is that they can rouse themselves for such occasions, even when they are preceded by bitter disappointments.
The opening-day loss to Burnley was followed by beating Tottenham; when trailing 2-1 to Watford, his substitutions prompted a transformation into a 4-2 win.
Conte can get a response. After questioning his team’s appetite for success, he will look for another.