More and more the changes happen, and more and more everything stays the same: it’s just a little bit of history repeating.
Every week, Chelsea seem to face a new challenger in the title race, and every week they pull further and further away from their supposed rival.
Assuming a Manchester City victory over Bournemouth on Monday evening, Chelsea’s newest direct opponent will become Pep Guardiola’s side, a team Chelsea haven’t seen as their closest rivals since they won at the Etihad Stadium on December 3rd.
It’s not over the top to assume a City victory, though. In the three games the Blues have played against Bournemouth in the Premier League, the aggregate score stands at 13-1. A repeat of anything like their normal routine against the Cherries would see City close the gap between themselves and Antonio Conte’s side to eight points, and the faint glimmer of a title race will be preserved like the dying embers of an open fire.
But there are two cautionary tales. Firstly, when Chelsea went to the Etihad Stadium in December, they were one point ahead of City. And if we’re to take anything at all from that stat, it’s surely that things can change rapidly in the Premier League. The signs don’t really seem to point to that happening any time soon from Chelsea’s side, though. City, on the other hand….
The other is the very fact that a win will see Pep Guardiola thrust into the position of leader of the opposition, the last strand of resistance to the Chelsea machine. If it was he back in December, it’s been Jurgen Klopp, Mauricio Pochettino and Arsene Wenger at various and changing points ever since. The regularity of the changing of the nearest challengers is really quite shocking – though the same could be said about the consistency of each of the chasing sides. If any of those clubs had managed to beat lowly opposition more regularly they would still be the main challengers. So don’t be surprised if City can’t do it either.
And yet, if City do win, this is a weekend in which Chelsea will have dropped points on the pack, a weekend in which the gap was closed. And strangely for such a weekend, this is a weekend in which Chelsea seemed to settle for a positive result. And that might just be the most jarring part.
Burnley’s home form is among the best in the league, so that’s one reason why Chelsea wouldn’t noticeably push on for a victory in the snow at Turf Moor this weekend. But the other reason might just show Guardiola a small opening.
For Chelsea, a draw was actually a good result. Sure, after their bright start to the game and the fact they took the lead, you could see a failure to win against a newly-promoted club as a negative result, but the truth is Chelsea didn’t need to win. And at 1-1 they certainly didn’t want to lose. In golf, you’d call that course management: deciding against going straight for the flag, or trying to hit a par-five green in two shots is just good course management, certainly if you’re leading the tournament.
At this point, Chelsea are plenty of shots clear: they no longer need birdies, they just don’t want to drop any shots.
And yet, Antonio Conte isn’t a man from whom you expect course management. He’s a manager you’d expect to be firing the ball straight at the pin in an unstoppable march towards victory.
Chelsea were caught this weekend erring on the side of caution, which is an entirely reasonable thing to do. While it didn’t directly lead to Liverpool’s collapse in 2013/14, the fact that Brendan Rodgers threw all caution to the howling wind at Selhurst Park when they were already 3-0 up on Crystal Palace is perhaps the best example of that kind of folly. Rodgers knew that his side would have lost the title on goal difference and smelled a chance to narrow the gap.
Conte smells exactly the opposite chance. Chelsea are far enough ahead now to warrant the shut up shop approach. Just as Liverpool should have done while 3-0 up in south London three years ago, Chelsea have a lead and they’re going to protect it: just as they did under Jose Mourinho two years ago.
History has a habit of repeating itself, you see. But which way will it go? Chelsea certainly aren’t going to throw it away whilst 3-0 up at Crystal Palace, or any other similar game: for one thing, they have no need to go for big wins, and for another, it’s just not their style.
And yet complacency could well be their downfall. We’ve heard so much this season about the top six sides’ inconsistency and their inability to beat the lesser teams when they have the chance. That is, clearly, the difference between Chelsea and the rest so far. But what explains that difference if not the fact that Chelsea have been so ruthless this season? And what happens if that relentless mania that has taken hold at Stamford Bridge subsides and reveals a complacency or a mentality that draws are enough?
Do they become just like the rest?
Because if they do, the others – City especially – have a huge chance. If Chelsea’s ruthlessness led to a gap opening at the top of the table in a matter of weeks, it can also change in a matter of weeks.
History has a habit of repeating itself, but who’s to say which history? Is it the history where Mourinho’s Chelsea trot to the title unchallenged? Is it the history where Manchester City come back from an eight-point deficit to topple Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United? Or is it the much more recent history where Chelsea changed their system and started to boss the league seemingly overnight?
And if it’s the latter, why can’t Guardiola’s City be that team?