In a strange way, Chelsea’s 2-2 draw with Arsenal epitomised their season in a microcosm. The Blues were left to rue what might have been after a helter-skelter match played at a breathless pace. A host of chances were created at both ends, yet despite hauling themselves back into the match after falling behind, the Blues were forced to settle for a point.
Chelsea produced some exquisite football at times but lacked the killer instinct. It has been an issue that has dogged them all season.
To lose to a Manchester City side playing a brand of football rarely seen on these shores before is no disgrace. But it is the results against the so-called smaller teams that have torpedoed Chelsea’s title defence. Losses against Crystal Palace, West Ham and Burnley have left their hopes of defending their title in tatters.
There remains a sneaking suspicion that this Chelsea team have somewhat lost their bite. That streak of ruthlessness that carried them to last season’s title seems to have gone missing in action.
The best Chelsea teams in the period since Russian roubles started flowing into the Stamford Bridge coffers have always possessed an inner steel. That is not to say there has not been attractive football along the way – the 103 goals Chelsea scored in 2009-10 under Carlo Ancelotti is a Premier League record (at least until Manchester City break it).
However, when one casts the mind back to those dominating sides – think especially of Mourinho’s first spell – they were known for their ability to bully teams and dominate them across the park. They had that priceless ability to keep collecting wins when they were not at their best, to just do enough to get the three points.
Last season’s Chelsea was a brutally efficient winning machine in this mould. The defence was damn near impregnable at times, and N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic patrolled the middle of the pitch. If one didn’t get you, the other invariably would. Up front, Diego Costa epitomised the fighting spirit (sometimes in an all too literal way) that characterised that side.
Yet this season a lack of strong characters has held Chelsea back too often. Too often they have been over-reliant on Eden Hazard to produce a moment of inspiration, and have missed a Costa or Matic figure to grab the game by the scruff of the neck and pull the rest of the team with them.
In their place, they have Tiémoué Bakayoko, a man for whom the words ‘tactical discipline’ seems to be an entirely foreign concept, and Alvaro Morata. The latter is undoubtedly a fine player, notwithstanding his profligacy in front of goal against Arsenal, but lacks Costa’s knack for imposing himself upon the opposition.
It was somewhat fitting this week that across Europe Costa was making his first appearance for Atletico Madrid since his return in the summer. A quiet run out against a third tier Spanish side turned into a textbook Costa performance – he scored, almost injured himself in the process and decided to get involved in a scuffle all for good measure.
The lack of leadership and characters in the Chelsea side is not surprising when you consider the calibre of players to have left the club in recent times. John Terry, Branislav Ivanovic and Petr Cech were all leaders in the dressing room. Going back a little further, what about Frank Lampard and of course Didier Drogba, who seemed to score goals almost by sheer force of will.
There is no easy solution for a lack of big characters or ruthlessness in a side – look at how Arsenal have desperately struggled to replace players such as Thierry Henry and Patrick Viera. Antonio Conte has, not for the first time, bemoaned his lack of squad depth, and his frustrations with the Chelsea board for not pursuing his targets. He will be hoping that, whether through new recruits or not, the inner steel which makes Chelsea such a fiendishly tough opponent will make a return.