As Chelsea’s mini-slump continued with another disjointed performance — this time against Roma in the Champions League — there is a growing sense of alarm among supporters that unwanted history is about to repeat itself at Stamford Bridge.
Successive Premier League defeats — 1-0 at home against table toppers Manchester City, 2-1 away at bottom club Crystal Palace — followed by the 3-3 against Roma, have heaped pressure on Blues boss Antonio Conte. Given the track record of the London club’s ever-impatient owner Roman Abramovich when it comes to firing managers perceived to be failing, fan concern for Conte’s immediate future at the Bridge is easily justified.
The parallels with the fractious and spectacular demise of Jose Mourinho’s last reign as Chelsea manager which ground to a juddering halt in December 2015 when Abramovich ordered his dismissal are all too apparent.
Relying on a nucleus of key players, Mourinho had driven his team hard, winning the League Cup and Premier League. Feted once more as the “Special One” by supporters, expectations were high that the Chelsea board would back the requests the Portuguese had made to strengthen his squad with the type of high-calibre signings required to take the club to another level — that level being the ability to successfully compete for trophies at both a domestic and European level.
Mourinho specifically wanted a top quality defender and midfielder. John Stones then of Everton, and Paul Pogba then of Juventus, were pursued, but negotiations floundered — principally it seems because Chelsea refused to meet the valuations set by their respective clubs. Such a scenario was hard to believe given the cash Abramovich had previously been happy to splash out, breaking Chelsea’s record transfer fee many times in the process. As it subsequently transpired, when they decided to make their moves, Manchester City (£47.5m for Stones) and Manchester United (£89.3m for Pogba) paid pretty much what was asked and got their men.
Left in the lurch by his board, Mourinho faced the new campaign with a fatigued side and fate rapidly conspired against him. In the wake of a public fallout with club doctor Eva Carneiro, a sequence of below par results followed and, amid tales of dressing room unrest, his world caved in.
The Carneiro incident and player fallouts were most likely a pressure blowout on the part of Mourinho, whose mental equilibrium must surely have been sapped by continually banging his head against the brick wall of the Chelsea boardroom as his transfer plans were repeatedly overlooked.
Fast-forward a couple of years and Conte is the new hope for Chelsea supporters. By weaving some tactical magic and working his players hard, the Italian got the best out of the resources available to him and won the title.
Along the way, there was a public falling out with prolific striker Diego Costa, but it didn’t matter to the fans because good as Costa was, strikers are replaceable; Conte — being a miracle-worker, a man of the people, one of them — less so. In under a year, Conte, with his heart-on-his-sleeve personality, had become the new “Special One” at the Bridge, his name chanted in unison by an adoring congregation.
With the Italian at the helm, the future looked truly splendid. Surely the Chelsea board, having learned the harsh lessons of the recent past when it comes to transfer dealings would be more forward-thinking this time around.
Well no, not really.
A drawn out but ultimately failed bid to land striker Romelu Lukaku didn’t inspire confidence, nor did the frankly bizarre decision to sell breakthrough starlets, defender Nathan Ake and midfielder Nathaniel Chalobah. Yes, Tiemoue Bakayoko and Antonio Rudiger look like very decent signings and the club broke its transfer record to bring in Alvaro Morata for £58m, but the net result was that the rest of Conte’s first-team squad still looked threadbare. Should key players become injured or fatigued the lack of options could be problematic.
A month ago, things looked to be going swimmingly for Conte and Chelsea after the 5-1 thrashing of Nottingham Forest in the League Cup was followed by a 4-0 Premier League win at Stoke and an incredibly impressive 2-1 Champions League triumph against Atletico in Madrid — what could possibly go wrong?
But in Chelsea’s next game, Morata, whose career at the Bridge got off to a goal-laden start, was injured as the Blues came up short in a 1-0 loss against a dominant Manchester City side whose board grant Pep Guardiola his every wish when it comes to signing players given the strength in depth the Etihad squad now boasts.
During the international break that followed, Chelsea midfielder N’Golo Kante suffered a hamstring injury that kept him out of the games with Palace and Roma. There is no doubting Kante’s importance to shielding the Blues defence and without him Conte’s backline has noticeably struggled.
Cesar Azpilicueta, uncharacteristically, has looked well below par. It’s possible the Spain international is fatigued: having played more times than any of his teammates for Chelsea last season, the versatile 28-year old picked up where he left off, but maybe it’s becoming a little too much for him.
Right now, Conte is clearly exasperated by all that has happened and could rightfully point an accusing finger at the Chelsea boardroom, a place where sympathy is typically in short supply. A candid admission that he got his tactics wrong against Roma won’t necessarily have helped his cause and Blues supporters are now left hoping that his players will raise their game and put in a winning performance against Watford on Saturday.
Defeat at the Bridge against the Hornets could prove disastrous for Conte. It’s a dreadful thing to contemplate for the fans who will surely vent their collective spleen against the board should the seemingly inevitable happen as a consequence, but he needs to avoid treading the same path as Mourinho.
Mark Worrall is one of ESPN FC’s Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter: @gate17marco