Talks of crisis for Chelsea are premature. This is not a full-blooded, Kevin Keegan-esque choke just yet. An unfortunate defeat to Crystal Palace and being utterly Mourinho’d at Old Trafford are both understandable. Tottenham’s form has forced the issue for Chelsea, but it does not mean Antonio Conte’s side are teetering on the brink of a humiliating collapse.
The gap has gone from excessive breathing space to a slightly oxygen deprived area. The return of Harry Kane and relentless winning run from Spurs has seen Chelsea’s defeats hurt as much as they possibly could have done, though that is not to say they are letting the trophy fully slip through their fingers.
Clean sheets in Premier League football are a rarity for Chelsea now, though. From the locktight defence that brought the autumnal winning streak, they are leaking on a regular basis. No egg presented next to their opposition’s name since the 22nd January shows how they have fallen as a defensive unit. In part down to fitness issues for Victor Moses, in part due to different approaches from the opposition and in part a regression to the mean.
Aside from a swathe of squad damaging injuries, defensive instability was the likeliest downfall for Conte’s Blues. David Luiz’s stellar campaign has taken a minor dip, while the losses of Thibaut Courtois and Marcos Alonso left the rest of the backline shaken for their defeat against Manchester United at the weekend.
The back three has invited pressure all season. Chelsea lull the opponent into a false sense of security before unleashing the battering ram Diego Costa with his jinking accomplices, Eden Hazard and Pedro. The system relies a lot on N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic being able to stop the number of touches the opposition can notch in Chelsea’s third. Teams have begun to have joy against Kante and Matic, often playing an extra man in there to gain a numerical advantage rather than targeting the wing-backs.
The result has been more dangerous balls played towards the back three. Kurt Zouma has occasionally appeared, too, but the Frenchman seems to unsettle the balance of a defence that was performing far above all expectations. Ultimately, Conte does not set his side up to defend, but the way that the defence has to play forces them to take a brunt of the pressure to enable Hazard and Pedro to have space to expose.
The uncertainties at the back have created issues up the pitch. Kante and Matic dropped deeper, the wing-backs have been pegged back to avoid the centre-backs being dragged wide and it leaves Chelsea without options up the pitch. Hazard, Costa and Pedro were too often isolated at Old Trafford, without the support of marauding wing-backs.
A dependency on defence for Chelsea is – as we are so often told – because it is the foundations of the rest of their play. If David Luiz can freely carry the ball, Moses and Alonso advance and Courtois return to the side, Chelsea will stride comfortably to the title. Should their issues grow at the back, things could get tense.