It has been a wretched start. Chelsea have lost the Community Shield and lost their opening Premier League game. The reigning champions have lost players to injuries and red cards in a summer of frustration. So what has gone wrong? Here are six problems.
It is rare a club spends £130 million (Dh618m), brings in three major players and still seems so dissatisfied with its transfer activity. "One player is not enough; we need more," said Antonio Conte earlier this month. Defender Cesar Azpilicueta echoed him on Saturday, saying: "We need players … when you see the players we lost and the players we have signed, they are not the same." Alvaro Morata, Antonio Rudiger and Tiemoue Bakayoko represent frontline buys, but many Chelsea targeted – Romelu Lukaku, Leonardo Bonucci, Danilo – have eluded them or, in the cases of Alex Sandro and Virgil van Dijk, may do and Conte has seemed to be sulking when not starting his new signings.
Lack of depth
Conte's first XI remains excellent, but injuries to Bakayoko, Eden Hazard and Pedro have shown a lack of strength in depth and produced the surprise sight of the comparative unknown Jeremie Boga beginning the defeat to Burnley, when five more inexperienced players were substitutes. A need for reinforcements is most apparent in the wing-back positions and the centre of midfield, where Cesc Fabregas is now banned and Conte has described the sold Nemanja Matic as "a great loss". Chelsea have not helped themselves by loaning out 26 players. If Kurt Zouma and Ruben Loftus-Cheek had not gone, they might be facing Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday, while others would surely be on the bench.
The Costa affair
There is no half-way house with Diego Costa. He is either destructive or self-destructive, either a positive or negative influence. Chelsea's inability to sell the striker is not just reducing his price; it is also creating an unwanted distraction. Now they are suffering for their botched handling of the affair. Costa, who was dumped by Conte by text, has claimed he is being treated like "a criminal" and said the Italian is not close to his players. He is a destabilising force.
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Chelsea have talked themselves into trouble, creating an air of negativity before they had played, or lost, a game. Conte has set the wrong example, predicting the most difficult season of his career. His players have seemed intent on making that a self-fulfilling prophecy. They are behaving as if the world is conspiring against them, rather than acting with the confidence of defending champions bolstered by three big-name arrivals.
Chelsea completed the Premier League last season without a solitary sending off. Now they have had four red cards in three competitive games in all competitions. All have been justified. Indeed the trio this season – Pedro against Arsenal, Gary Cahill and Fabregas versus Burnley – could all have been straight red cards for tackles that are now deemed dangerous. Chelsea kept their cool last season. They have lost their heads this.
Collectively, Chelsea were sluggish against Arsenal and shambolic against Burnley. Individually, plenty of players, with the notable exception of Willian, have failed to hit the heights. David Luiz reverted to being error-prone on Saturday. Michy Batshuayi was anonymous. Thibaut Courtois perhaps should have done better with Sam Vokes’ opening goal. The first step to improvement is for each player to do his job better.
So what next?
Chelsea visit Wembley to face Tottenham on Sunday depleted by Cahill and Fabregas’ bans and as definite underdogs. With Everton, Leicester City and Arsenal next, their season could spiral out of control. While they can hope for additions and Conte definitely should start Morata, the first step is regain the resolve and the attitude that served them well. Take responsibility for their actions, stay on the right side of the law, perform with uncomplaining excellence, well-drilled organisation and positional discipline. In short, do everything they did right last season and which they have been doing wrong this season.