With Costa Gone Antonio Conte Has Mislaid The Dressing Room
Chelsea's disappointing 2-1 defeat at the hands of Crystal Palace yesterday revealed quite a lot. After Antonio Conte`s sleepless night he no doubt dwelt on what went wrong in South London. First consideration should have been his team selection. With injuries depleting what was already a squad light on numbers, and the games coming thick and fast, squad rotation is everything.
As has been noted many times recently on this site, Gary Cahill and Willian, in particular, are struggling for any sort of form. But it wasn`t just them. In truth, after this loss, it`s more a collective failure of form that triggered this sad demise. As a defender, our captain, probably gets off lighter than Willian, who is on the field to score or create. Much as I dislike criticising players, the Brazilian needs a break from the firing line. It could be, that like Matic he wanted to follow the Serb to United, but it didn`t happen.
Chelsea have put themselves in a difficult position by allowing players to dictate which club they move to. It's another part of the problem that results in disharmony at the football club. Despite holding onto Costa for as long as possible and getting the best deal for them, it seemed player power was diminishing at the club. But eventually Costa, like Cech, like Matic got the move they wanted. With Hazard and Courtois having one eye on a lucrative transfer to Spain, Conte has two more players whose minds are not fully focussed on the game.
Of course it`s easy to sit at a keyboard after the event making retrospective judgements on this decision and that. Like all of us here, I`ve not been on the training field, observing the player`s fitness and attitude. Conte knows his players much much better than me. Cahill's the captain, and without doubt leads by example, however, defensively against Palace it was a mess. He has to shoulder some of the blame. Cahill's job is to organise those directly around him, that direction, yesterday, was unfortunately lacking.
The loss of N'golo Kante highlighted the crucial role he plays in Conte`s 3-4-3 system. With the French midfielder in the side, it's more a 3-5-3 formation, or more appropriately a 4-4-3, given the area Kante covers. Without Kante, sidelined for a month, Cesc Fabregas and Tiemoue Bakayoko are not an ideal midfield partnership. Whilst there`s no doubting Fabregas`s creativity, his work ethic is nowhere near that of Kante. Bakayoko shows plenty of promise but in Premier League terms he`s still raw, and I hate to say it, no Nemanja Matic.
Other options should have been considered by the manager. With David Luiz showing signs of some of his old defensive frailties, he could have been used in midfield in place of Fabregas. Andreas Christensen could easily have replaced Luiz which may have worked better. Antonio Rudiger in place of Cahill another possible change. As I said though, hindsight is a wonderful thing.
That aside, also up for some criticism should be our wing backs. Although far from being a new system, Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses took the Premier League by storm last season, patrolling the wings. They were a revelation under Conte, who was deemed a genius for employing them in those roles. It was after all, a formation change that won the league. This time round the whole 3-4-3 formation has been found out. Opposing managers have not only worked it out, but have adopted and adapted it.
The manager needs to be mixing formations up, to a degree he has. Unfortunately the squad is not big enough or for that matter, good enough to facilitate too many changes of system. His selection of formation has become too formulaic.
With four potential first team players currently injured, Moses being the latest, so thin is the squad, the team selection has been easy to predict, assuming Conte picks his best eleven for any given game. For an opposing manager, to have to beauty of practically knowing your opposition's line-up well in advance of the actual game, makes life so much easier.
Without Morata in the team it`s difficult to see where the goals are going to come from. The game yesterday showed a team lacking depth, check the bench, as well as goals. Michy Batshuayi was given his chance to shine in Morata`s absence against the weakest side in the league. He failed to take that chance and can have no issues with sitting amongst the substitutes when Morata returns. You could argue he wasn't provided with much in the way of service, but as a striker you have to find a way to score, that is after all in the job description. The fact that Tammy Abraham is banging the goals in for Swansea City doesn't help the situation, it simply makes Chelsea's loan policy look all the more ridiculous.
Footballers can all have off days, they are only human. But, there`s a collective responsibility to step up when one of your number is missing in action. That is something else that is lacking in this Chelsea team at the moment. It`s another missing piece in Chelsea`s current dysfunctional jigsaw, aside from a lack of players, and a boom and bust attitude at boardroom level, is a strong figure on the field of play. Someone to take a game or even the rest of the team by the scruff of the neck and drag a result out of them.
When it's missing on the field, the manager has to be strong on the sidelines. For all his faults, Jose Mourinho could not be accused of being a shrinking violet on the touchline, neither can Antonio Conte. But when Mourinho called out the club's on-field doctor, Eva Carneiro, for doing her job and attending to an injured player against his wishes, he effectively lost the dressing room. It didn`t matter what he did on the touchline, the players weren't listening.
That incident with the doctor was the first game of the season, it set the tone for the infamous 2015-16 season. Conte's dealings with Diego Costa, however it was done, left the team with doubts concerning his man management skills. We know how delicate the mind of a footballer can be, and despite Costa`s antics on the field of play, that frustrated both manager and fans alike, he was a popular figure amongst the players. He was very much someone you wanted in your side.
It's not as simple as to say Antonio Conte has lost the dressing room as Mourinho did, but following the Brazilian born Spanish international`s departure from the club, he may well have mislaid them a bit. The win against Atletico Madrid papered over a crack that has the potential to deepen further. Eight games in and at least the start has not been as bad as the infamous 2015-16 season under Mourinho. Those eight games delivered two wins, two draws and two defeats. With Roma heading to Stamford Bridge on Wednesday night Conte needs to get the players up and back on board before the season falters and falls as it so often does.