The turning point in Antonio Conte’s first season in charge at Chelsea is an obvious one.
3-0 down at half time against Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium, the Blues boss made a tactical switch which would come to define his title-winning campaign. The much talked-about move to a back three befuddled opponents and saw his team make an unstoppable march to the title with same sense of inevitability as an elephant crushing a wine glass under foot.
This season, there was a similar moment of clarity in a season of ups and downs.
As the then-champions took on a Manchester City side who had become champions-elect, there was a sense that a torch was being passed by one set of Blues to another. Conte’s men traveled to the Etihad Stadium still alive after a draw in a Champions League last 16 tie first leg at home to Barcelona, but on the back of a defeat to Manchester United at Old Trafford.
Victory seemed unlikely at the home of a team who were on the verge of breaking records and still looked on for a treble. Instead, Chelsea’s meek performance was slammed from pillar to post by all of those who looked on in amazement as the champions didn’t even attempt to engage with a side who gained perhaps their most unexpectedly easy win of the season.
It was disappointing for all the obvious reasons: no one wants to see their team effectively surrender, to throw in the towel without even giving it a go. But it was also a let-down in a wider sense, too – if you want to be champions, you should have to prove your worth against the current title-holders. Chelsea let City away without a real test, and even in 2015/16, when the Stamford Bridge side were at arguably their lowest ebb since Roman Abramovich first became involved at the club, that honour was upheld as Tottenham Hotspur were denied the title at the home of the champions. It may not have mattered much to Leicester City’s title win in the end, but Chelsea really felt like gatekeepers that night: Spurs didn’t pass the test.
This season, their meek surrender was this year’s stand-out moment in a way that the second half at the Emirates was last season. Only this time, Chelsea produced a deformed mirror image of their turning point moment, as though Conte’s side had wandered into some dystopian hall of mirrors, a side unrecognisable from before and thoroughly disturbed at the sight of their own reflection.
It’s hard to point to that one moment as a ‘turning point’ in the same way as the Arsenal game last season was. There is no discernable before and after. But it is perhaps the performance which is most obviously symptomatic of the sclerosis that has consumed the champions this season. It was the moment when most onlookers decided that the players were no longer playing for Antonio Conte, and that his days left at the club were numbered.
Not much has changed since that moment. Chelsea have only marginally improved enough to take the battle for the top four into the final day, but you feel as though leaving the club outside the Champions League is going to be one of Conte’s final acts. If losing to Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United in an FA Cup final is, to boot, the final one, it would surely be one of the sharpest demises we’ve seen from a manager in the Premier League. It would be up there with Roberto Mancini, who left Manchester City a year after winning the title in barely-fathomable circumstances but after finishing 11 points adrift of United and losing the FA Cup final to the relegation zone’s Wigan Athletic.
It’s not the fact that Chelsea will likely finish fifth that means Conte is unlikely to be in the home dugout at the start of next season. It’s the tameness of their title defence when it really mattered. Just as they shocked the Premier League last season with an innovative performance, this time they shocked equally with a toothless one.