Having taken the Premier League by storm last season, it was always going to be tough for Antonio Conte to recreate the same dominance in 2017-18, and while Chelsea remain one of the division’s top sides, so far the Blues have fallen short of their 2016-17 standards.
After defeat to Manchester United at the end of February, Conte was forced to admit that there was a possibility that Chelsea might not make the top four, an outcome that would be a major setback for the club and could well lead to the Italian coach’s departure.
After being in the top four for most of the season, successive defeats to Bournemouth and Watford followed by losses against both of the Manchester clubs saw Chelsea drop to fifth. A bet on Chelsea to finish in a Champions League qualification place this season will get you odds of 3.0 with most bookies.
A number of factors have come together this season to cause Chelsea’s mini-decline. The most significant is probably the personnel changes made last summer. Nemanja Matić and Diego Costa both played a huge role in the Premier League win, but their replacements have not offered the same level of performance, and Álvaro Morata in particular has been a disappointment as a front man.
It is also the case that other teams have found ways to combat the 3-4-3 system that Chelsea employed to such effect last season, either by packing the midfield or exploiting the space behind Chelsea’s wing-backs. Losing to last year’s title rivals may be a disappointment, but defeats to West Ham, Burnley, Crystal Palace, Bournemouth and Watford suggest that Conte’s side doesn’t hold the same fear for lesser teams that it did last year.
The other important factor to consider is that this year Chelsea are engaged in a Champions League campaign, which has placed additional strain on a squad that is probably weaker than last season’s, when they had the luxury of being able to rest their best players while their Premier League rivals were engaged in European action.
With a gap of four points to make up on Liverpool and five to catch Tottenham, Chelsea have a lot of work to do if they are to get back into the top four. However, one thing in their favour is the fixture list. Conte’s men will play both of the two teams above them before the season is out, along with five games against clubs that are currently in the bottom half.
There were also positive signs in their recent win against Crystal Palace, in which January signing Olivier Giroud led the line well and Eden Hazard ran the show. Two early goals killed off the visitors, and if Chelsea can show the same kind of ruthlessness for the remainder of the season, they may yet be able to sneak back into the top four, guaranteeing another European campaign and, perhaps, another year in the job for Conte.