Just as it was at the start of what Antonio Conte referred to as the ‘Jose Mourinho season’, Chelsea had been touted as potential dynasty builders after their title victory in May.
So dominant were they that despite the Premier League, its billions of pounds to throw around on players, and its superstar managers at the upper echelons of the table, Chelsea still looked unstoppable. Their team looked so perfectly set up: they had a winning side already, but had clear areas of improvement at right wing-back, central midfield, and with Diego Costa so clearly out of favour, in the central striker’s position, too.
And not only did they have an easy opportunity to strengthen and add fresh impetus an already title-winning squad, but they also had plenty of hungry, well thought-of youth players who could have been used sparingly as cover for their first team – Champions League football was still to come, after all.
But from a position that seemed like an open goal for the Stamford Bridge side, they seem to have missed the target spectacularly. So far this summer, what Chelsea seem to have done is streamline their squad.
Inexplicably, given their extra European commitments.
In any area where they added a first team player, they’ve also got rid of one. They lost Asmir Begovic but replaced him with Willy Caballero. They lost John Terry and Nathan Ake and replaced them with Antonio Rudiger and Andreas Christensen. They lost Nemanja Matic and replaced him with Tiemoue Bakayoko. They’ll probably lose Diego Costa, and his replacement is Alvaro Morata.
It’s like-for-like everywhere, and you could hardly call every new signing an upgrade.
The streamlining comes in when you look at the young academy products who haven’t just been let out on loan once again, but have actually been sold this time: Nathaniel Chalobah, Dominic Solanke, Nathan Ake and Bertrand Traore. That makes Chelsea’s squad smaller on top of the other signings and departures that arguably make it weaker, too.
But then you make comparisons with this weekend’s opponents Tottenham, who have also had – by all accounts – a similarly frustrating summer.
Mauricio Pochettino hasn’t had to juggle things around like his counterpart Conte has, but what was a position of strength in May has suddenly started to seem like one of weakness when compared to the rest of the top six.
Not only haven’t they signed anyone, but even if they do between now and then end of the transfer window, history has shown that Pochettino signings who come in after the start of Spurs’ pre-season tend to be flops, whilst those given the entire summer to adapt to their new teammates, surroundings and training methods do better.
On top of that, Spurs have lost a first-team regular and will have to play at Wembley, where their inability to win last season was painted as a ‘curse’, and seem to be currently dealing with player unrest stemming from the fact their wages are so much lower than their peers at the other top six clubs.
Taken altogether, and it looks like last season’s top two have been surpassed by at least a few of those beneath them. On top of all the internal strife and lack of adequate summer business, Chelsea will suffer extra this season by having to deal with European football again, whilst Spurs’ extra problems will come from their new temporary home.
And so what looked like the perfect curtain raiser for Premier League football at the national stadium now looks like a fight between two clubs attempting to prove that their seasons haven’t ended before they even began.
Chelsea, last week, suffered a humiliating defeat at home to Burnley, even if their second half comeback seems to suggest that they may not be that bad all season. Tottenham, meanwhile, overcame Newcastle in a way that wasn’t overly impressive until Jonjo Shelvey’s sending off changed the game – though after that Spurs were, admittedly, closer to last season’s best.
This weekend’s game should be the first clash between title contenders, but will be watched with interest because both teams appear to be in some sort of a crisis instead. For Chelsea, this game is huge because if they lose, that’ll be two defeats in a row to add to all their other issues. For Spurs, defeat will see a deluge of ‘Wembley curse’ pieces which could go on for quite a while if form doesn’t improve.
Perhaps there is too much emphasis placed upon transfers this summer, and maybe that has led to knee-jerk reactions around Chelsea and Spurs, the two teams who were the quietest in the window, but who were also the strongest last year. But the fact remains that everyone has strengthened whilst these two seem to have stood still.
And thanks to that, the fear of failure already casts a spectre over this game: in a very different sense, this season could well be another Jose Mourinho season after all.