The last time Chelsea faced Burnley on the opening day of a Premier League season, a 3-1 win at Turf Moor – remembered best for a gorgeous goal in which Cesc Fabregas’ sublime pass was finished off by Andre Schurrle – set the tone for the rest of the campaign.
The aesthetic football dried up post-Christmas as Jose Mourinho’s pragmatic instincts took over, but the Blues started the season on the front foot and continued in that manner until clinching the title against Crystal Palace in May. In fact, from the first to the last, Chelsea finished all 38 matchdays at the top of the table and eventually claimed the crown by an eight-point margin, losing only three games along the way.
Twelve months later, Chelsea’s season opener against Swansea City had the same tone-setting effect, yet in completely polarised, pejorative terms. Following a winless pre-season and an underwhelming summer transfer window, Mourinho’s temper had already reached boiling point when, after Thibaut Courtois was sent off, Swansea came back twice to draw level against ten men. Eva Caneiro then rushed onto the field to treat a downed Eden Hazard in and the fallout from Mourinho’s response sent splinters throughout the club. From then on, Chelsea’s title defence rapidly unravelled.
Chelsea’s opening performance and result for 2017/18 undoubtedly bears closer resemblance to the latter game; two red cards and a shock defeat at home to a side who’ll likely finish the season in the bottom half, on the backdrop of an unconvincing transfer window that has seen plenty leave west London, including two incredibly experienced players in Nemanja Matic and John Terry, but not enough arrive. Considering how frosty Antonio Conte has appeared in the public eye in recent weeks, another title defence imploding before its already started – another ‘Mourinho season’ to quote the Italian himself – has already become frighteningly plausible.
History does have a curious knack of repeating itself in football, but whether their season will differ from 2015/16 despite starting with staggeringly similar beginnings remains fully in Chelsea’s control. Whereas Mourinho’s reaction to the Swansea draw divided his players almost instantaneously, Conte’s response has the power to put last weekend’s result into context, to remind everybody that it’s a 38-game season and that the Blues are still very much one of the top sides – if not the top side – in the Premier League.
In another eerie similarity, Chelsea once again face last season’s runners up in their second game of the campaign. In 2015/16, the Swansea result was followed up by a 3-0 defeat to Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium. The Blues now travel to Wembley to take on Tottenham Hotspur, a rival they’ve lost to, drawn to and beaten twice from their last six Premier League meetings, including one draw and one defeat apiece in the top flight last season.
Clinching a win in what has become the Premier League’s most heated and significant London derby over the last few seasons would undoubtedly put Chelsea’s season back on the right path. But after last weekend’s result, it’s vital the Blues don’t bite off more than they can chew. At this stage of the season, a draw against a top side away from home is more than enough to re-instil confidence throughout the squad and amongst concerned supporters.
That may seem a somewhat pessimistic viewpoint, but Conte doesn’t have a full squad at his disposal – even talismanic attacker Eden Hazard is injured – and Tottenham are still an unpredictable quantity at their new home. Their record at Wembley is underwhelming to say the least, but that may not necessarily apply in league action when the home of English football is filled with a Spurs-partisan crowd.
Furthermore, amid all the discussion of season openings, it’s actually last term that Conte can take the most inspiration from. Unconvincing performances and back-to-back defeats to divisional rivals in Liverpool and Arsenal saw the Blues plummet all the way down to eighth place after six games. By the time of their next defeat, however, Chelsea were in pole position and five points clear of the chasing pack. The switch to 3-4-3 transformed the Blues’ season, inspired a run of 13 straight wins and had the rest of the league scratching its collective chin hoping to think up a tactical remedy.
Another tactical switch having such a devastating effect on Chelsea’s opponents seems unlikely. For starters, from the squad Chelsea currently have, Conte’s hands are relatively tied in fielding a 3-4-3 or at the most different, a slight variation. But the most important factor is Conte’s ability to maintain the perception of control, something Mourinho’s failure to do eventually cost him dearly. That’s easier said than done when results aren’t going your way, especially when you’re as hot-headed as Conte, but it’s imperative the Italian doesn’t let one bad result on the opening day of the season spiral into a full-blown crisis. More melodrama will serve nobody well.
Vital to that challenge is remembering there are two weeks of the transfer window still to go – Chelsea’s two best signings last summer arrived in the last two days of August, David Luiz and Marcos Alonso – and 37 games left of the Blues’ title defence. Chelsea’s season has started in almost the worst way possible, but patience, pragmatism, perspective and a few smart signings can quickly put it back on the right path. Conte must learn from Mourinho’s errors and take inspiration from the turnaround he masterminded less than twelve months ago.