Chelsea’s 2017-18 Premier League season ended as it began: With disappointment amid rumblings of behind-the-scenes dysfunction and simmering turmoil.
Two hundred and seventy-three days after an almost unfathomably bad start to their title defense, the Blues slumped to a 3-0 loss at Newcastle that ensured they would finish outside the Premier League’s top four. The result dumped Chelsea into the Europa League group stage for the first time since 2002-03. And it was the latest dip on a four-year roller coster whose future direction is uncertain.
Chelsea’s fate was sealed Sunday, but its previous failures had doomed it. In 2018 alone, a 3-0 home loss to Bournemouth, a 4-1 defeat at Watford, a home draw with West Ham and shortcomings against fellow Big Six sides had dug Chelsea a hole. A 1-1 draw with Huddersfield this past Wednesday cut short a late turnaround.
And it has left the club in a thorny spot, facing a critical offseason. Decisions over the next three months will go a long way toward determining where the club goes from here, and how well it recovers from a fifth-place finish.
First, though, there is business to attend to at Wembley.
Chelsea still has a shot at silverware
The FA Cup final, in many ways, will be a battle to avoid disappointment. For Chelsea, it’s a battle to avoid a third trophy-less season in five years.
Saturday’s showdown with Manchester United at Wembley is about more than just silverware. It’s about the mood at what has become a moody club. It’s about a feel-good finish to a mostly feel-bad year. And it’d be a boost – materially and psychologically – heading into that critical offseason.
Is Antonio Conte gone?
There has been a sense, bordering on an assumption, for months now that the 2017-18 season would be Antonio Conte’s last in England. The rumors of dissatisfaction and disagreement with the board date back to last summer, when there was consternation over a contract extension and transfer policies. Conte’s public complaints about the club’s transfer dealings continued throughout the season. Thus, so did talk of his impending exit.
Nothing has been confirmed, and in all likelihood, nothing will be confirmed until after the FA Cup final. “I have a contract, I am committed for this club,” Conte said after Sunday’s loss.
But with respect to potential replacements, the Chelsea job is being discussed as if it’s vacant. Conte is almost asking to be fired. When asked about Chelsea’s failure to qualify for the Champions League on Sunday, he deflected blame, saying, “I think that I’m the last person to speak about this. You can ask the club.”
He has to go. And if/when he and Conte part ways, either by mutual consent or in the form of a sacking, the club surely must look for a manager who’ll offer a bit more long-term stability.
The futures of Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois
There are persistent rumblings about Chelsea’s two most valuable players, Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois. Specifically, there are recurring links to Real Madrid. And if either player has his eyes on Spain, or elsewhere, Chelsea’s failure to qualify for the Champions League could accelerate the timeline.
Hazard, in particular, is too good to be playing in the Europa League. He’s too good to be spending two years of his prime sitting at home, watching Champions League games on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. If he wants out this summer, you can’t really blame him. He’d be one of the most coveted players on the market. And his potential exit would leave Chelsea with a gaping hole to fill.
What must Chelsea fix?
Chelsea’s biggest shortcoming this year was creativity. Its attack produced the fewest Expected Goals of the Big Six. Part of the void was a byproduct of Conte’s system, which at times morphed from a 3-4-3 into a 3-5-2. So much of the attack – too much of it – ran through Hazard and only Hazard. The secondary playmaking option was Cesc Fabregas, who was a liability on the defensive side of the ball.
If Hazard stays, there isn’t necessarily a gaping hole in the squad in attacking midfield areas. Willian was one of Chelsea’s few shining lights this past season. If Conte does go, it’s probably worth seeing what the current personnel can do in a better attacking system.
If Hazard and Courtois do depart, their positions become the biggest positions of need. Otherwise, the priority is central midfield, where Chelsea clearly missed the stability of Nemanja Matic.
Is a broader re-think necessary at Stamford Bridge?
In recent years, Chelsea has transformed itself from the original billionaire-fueled big spender to a financially stable selling club. It has built a loan army of youngsters to fund moves for senior stars; it has also sacrificed depth to move on from high-earning first-teamers who were either aging or falling out of favor.
And it has systematized all of this, taking significant power out of the manager’s hands. That, seemingly, is one of the things that angered Conte. And to be fair to the Italian boss, it did take its toll on the squad. It has seemingly dragged Chelsea down out of the superclub ranks. The Blues, for example, did not have a representative at a high-stakes private London meeting between FIFA and seven of club soccer’s giants this past week.
So should Roman Abramovic and Chelsea executives re-consider their fiscally responsible ways? Not necessarily. Doing so would be confusing poor spending for a lack of spending. Chelsea’s squad pales in comparison to Manchester City’s mostly because Chelsea hasn’t spent its money well. Its transfer outlay was over $300 million this year. Of the eight players it bought, only two – Olivier Giroud and Antonio Rudiger – look to have been good value for money based on early returns.
And it’s not like that’s a trend. Lest we forget, Chelsea won the title going away last year. So a fifth-place finish, while damaging, needn’t be cause for panic. Instead, it should kick-start a search for a new manager who’ll coexist with the transfer staff and its policies, and who’ll make slightly better use of the attacking players at his disposal.
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