Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Stable lineup key if Antonio Conte is to stop the rot at Chelsea

Chelsea's abject 3-0 capitulation against Roma in the Stadio Olimpico rightfully drew swathes of criticism from every angle of the game following what was, by some margin, the London club's worst team performance of the season.
After the match, Blues manager Antonio Conte, clearly angered by the result, got in on the act, joining supporters and pundits with an incisive and disparaging assessment of what he had just witnessed.
The Italian's cut-to-the-chase summary that his players "lacked everything" in the second half and came up short against Roma in respect of "motivation and hunger" hit the nail squarely on the head, though to say that the first-half score, 2-0 to the Serie A side, was "unfair" was naive.
Yes, Chelsea competed well in the first half, dominated possession and created chances, but they were undone yet again by the type of calamitous defending that has stalked them for much of this campaign.
Caught out by a lack of concentration inside the first minute, Roma took the lead through Stephan El Shaarawy, who doubled the home side's advantage before the break when taking full advantage of Antonio Rudiger's appalling misjudgment of a speculative long ball from Radja Nainggolan.
With the game taking place on Halloween, Rudiger's error was certainly the stuff of nightmares and worse was to follow in the second period, when Diego Perotti exposed Pedro's limitations as a wing-back and, allowed the freedom of the pitch by Chelsea's back line, made it 3-0 to Roma.
Moments later, the lack of communication and cohesiveness that has been an unwanted feature of Chelsea's defending so often this season was laid bare for all the world to see when centre-back trio Cesar Azpilicueta, David Luiz and Rudiger joined in unison to chase after Edin Dzeko, leaving Perotti unmarked in front of goal. Dzeko passed the ball to his teammate who, fortunately for the hapless Blues, blazed his shot over the bar.
Had the Argentine scored, and Thibaut Courtois not made a couple of excellent saves late on, Chelsea could easily have lost the game 6-0. Such a result might easily have left Conte in a precarious position with owner Roman Abramovich.
Last season, Conte won the hearts and minds of Chelsea supporters, addressing early season defensive fragility by radically transforming the way the team played, shifting from a traditional back-four setup to three centre-backs augmented by a wing-back system. The rest of the Premier League mostly failed to get to grips with Chelsea's tactics for the balance of the campaign.
Stability of personnel was as much a key determining factor as Conte's shift in tactics, which brought the title to Stamford Bridge with games to spare. A back three of Azpilicueta, David Luiz and Gary Cahill, flanked by Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses, and shielded by N'Golo Kante, formed the bedrock of Chelsea's success.
During the summer, Conte bolstered his defensive and midfield options by signing defender Rudiger, wing-back Davide Zappacosta and midfielder Tiemoue Bakayoko. He also brought centre-back Andreas Christensen back from loan and into the first-team picture.
The signs looked promising, with all four players boasting international credentials. All Conte had to do was to figure out his best permutation, but thus far it's proved to be a task beyond the manager, whose ongoing lack of consistency when it comes to picking his starting XI suggests he doesn't know what his best team is.
While it's true that ill-discipline, Cahill and Luiz suspensions through red cards, and injuries (Kante and Victor Moses) have made it difficult for Conte to retain the same lineup, it's not been as impossible a task as his decision to field different starting XIs for the past 13 games in all competitions might suggest.
After having failed to keep a clean sheet in six previous games, Chelsea managed just that against Bournemouth last Saturday. Conte could have opted to go with the same defensive setup vs. Roma but he initially deployed Azpilicueta at wing-back to accommodate Cahill in his back three alongside Rudiger and Luiz. And, as things went awry, Cahill was withdrawn in favour of Willian, Pedro shunted to wing-back and Azpilicueta moved into the back line.
In life, it is often said that familiarity breeds contempt, but the same cannot be said in football. If Conte is to stop the defensive rot, he needs to swiftly determine his optimum lineup and stick with it. The imminent return of Kante could prove to be a godsend, but the France international can only work with what's behind him, and understanding and communication are key to this

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