In many ways, the Charity Shield arguably provided an accelerated summary of the last 12 months for Chelsea under Antonio Conte. We started unremarkably, built a pace, took a lead and then got beat by Arsenal in a knockout decider.
I respect the fact that Thibaut Courtois might take a decent penalty in training but the sight of him doing so in a what is still a trophy match (no Chelsea v Arsenal is ever really a friendly) spoke to uncomfortable issues. Was there really no outfield player capable, ready or confident that they could take a penalty better than a goalkeeper? It’s perhaps a small issue (and probably belies Courtois normally unseen talent from spot) but it bothers me. Perhaps because I’m in danger of breaking a rule and getting swept up the narrative of things not being as they should be at Stamford Bridge.
The FA Cup final (and loss of a double) continues to be a stone in the otherwise stylish shoe of our league winning campaign last season. The Charity Shield only served to suggest that it hasn’t quite disappeared. It would have taken more than the usual glance at critically esteemed opinion (or otherwise) to find anyone who expected Arsenal to stop Chelsea winning double that day. And yet it happened. The theory goes that human beings regularly base their expectations on their most immediate recollections rather than full consideration of the facts. If that’s the case it’d be easy to understand the unease around the club. This is particularly so when much of that unease was reflected in Chelsea’s failings in the Charity Shield. ABC mistakes – being booked for diving, not tracking runners and conceding foul throws – were an uncomfortable reminder of the sloppiness of that FA Cup Final defeat. These were the errors that built Arsenal’s confidence in both games and pointed to bigger storylines at Stamford Bridge that needn’t have been under consideration.
The current talk is that Chelsea again have a situation where a title winning squad is underresourced. John Terry and Nemanja Matic have been replaced but that was never the issue for Conte. The point was to have a bigger squad to address Champions League and League demands at the same time. And to have this squad building done promptly so that new players were not still learning the tactical ropes in mid September as well as having to find form. When players like Hazard and Bakayoko will be feeling their way into the season after injury it helps to have the rest of the team ready to take pressure off them, if needs be. When you add all these things up pessimism begins to circulate in the preseason air. After all, even Conte is talking about “The Mourinho season” of 2015-16.
Then again, not a single ball has been kicked. The obvious temptation to read the runes of Mourinho’s Chelsea last days into Antonio Conte’s current ones also ignores certain discrepancies. For all Mourinho’s agitation in that unhappy early part of 2015-16, there was no club record signing like Alvaro Morata. No ball has been kicked and yet already the Chelsea team will be refreshed by at least one alternative player in every department of the line up. Compare that to 2015-16 where the side remained almost identical to that which had won the 2014-15 title, with an ever decreasing intensity as that season came to its conclusion. Pedro aside, the 2015-16 recruits, tasked with building on that success, either sat on the bench or weren’t deemed good enough to play at all. Compare that with 2017-18, even at this stage. Rudiger in defence, Bakoyoko in midfield and Morata as refreshers are in a different league to 2015-16. In case the new faces are not enough to change the dynamic, it’s also worth looking at what has stayed the same. Thibaut Courtois, Gary Cahill, Cesc Fabregas, Cesar Azpilicueta, Willian, Pedro and Eden Hazard all remember the roughness of 2015-16 and will remember the signs that led them to failure. Experience will be an excellent guide and motivator for them, particularly in a World Cup preparation season. Many of us who have been critical of Chelsea’s uncharitable attitude to our crop of serial winning youth players will also have noted the appearance of Charly Musonda in Sunday’s match. With no obvious loan deal in sight and a squad number in place, Musonda’s own words also speak to the possibility that he may just avoid the typical Chelsea cameo appearance before the inevitable trip to Holland:
“My manager is saying the right things to encourage me. I hope this little sample will be repeated because I want to assert myself here….”
It’s never encouraging to read of a lack of managerial harmony with the board but Chelsea supporters should remember that football is not the stock market. Wins are not determined by the mood that is set in the newspapers but by what the players decide to do on the pitch, in the microclimate the supporters choose to create in the ground. For all the reputed talk of unhappiness, it must be remembered that Conte has every reason to put pressure on the board with a month to go before the transfer window closes. While the Italian may not be satisfied with what he has now, history teaches us that this is his default setting for demanding more from those around him and perhaps from himself. Chelsea supporters should rest more assuredly, from the evidence they already have, Conte is not easily intimidated by the task of creating silk purses from pigs ears. Even at Chelsea and even now.