Alex Keble assesses the situation at Chelsea and suggests that Antonio Conte's team could be set for a repeat of the infamous 2015/16 season.
"As tensions rise, tactics become stale, and players become tired, it easy to see this squad repeat the same collapse of two seasons ago."
Just three months have passed since Chelsea regained the Premier League title at a canter but already pundits are rewriting the narrative of the 2016/17 campaign: their rivals were caught out by a simple formation change; Chelsea were overly reliant on Eden Hazard; and the absence of European football handed Antonio Conte a significant advantage. Rarely are champions so callously picked apart before the beginning of their title defence, but the growing murmurs of uncertainty - manifesting as disbelief that they were worthy of a 93-point haul - is well founded.
Jose Mourinho's diabolical 2015/16 campaign is, of course, the main reason for such wariness, and as the first fixture approaches there are undoubted similarities between the ruffled, scowling Mourinho of two years ago and Conte's jaded admission that he needs more players. In his own words, the Italian doesn't want his "very tired" players to suffer another "Mourinho season."
But it isn't just the freshness of Chelsea's scar tissue that has triggered Conte's comments. He, and the fans, can be legitimately concerned that 2017/18 will be a big disappointment. Chelsea are currently [1.81] to lay in the Top 3 market with Betfair Exchange - and well worth a bet.
Friction between manager and owner rarely ends well. Conte has repeatedly requested new signings this summer and has become increasingly vocal in recent weeks; after refusing to explicitly criticise the board for their failure to land Romelu Lukaku, he described Nemanja Matic as a "great loss" and a player who was "very important for our team". Tensions are rising, and the fact that Conte's recent contract renewal did not include an extension suggests he does not foresee a long spell at Stamford Bridge.
Why would he, if the team stays as it is? The squad lists in the Community Shield programme showed Conte had 17 fewer players to pick from than Arsenal, thanks to a summer in which nine have left the club. Assuming Diego Costa leaves imminently, Chelsea have just 17 senior players in their squad - a remarkably lower number considering they must contend with Champions League football this year.
New captain Gary Cahill has admitted he has to "hope we don't have too many injuries" due to the current squad size, a comment made redundant by the fact that both Eden Hazard and Tiemoue Bakayoko are already out. Unless five or six new names arrive before the end of the month, it seems almost impossible that such a thin squad can challenge for major honours, particularly when both Manchester clubs possess bloated squads following their combined £360 million summer spree.
Hazard, in particular, is a major loss. Last season's 3-4-2-1 formation heaped pressure on to the Belgian to create scoring opportunities, largely because the system essentially uses seven defensive players. The first two months of the season will be incredibly tough for Chelsea, who will be relying solely on Pedro and Willian for creativity (and be praying that Alvaro Morata hits the ground running) when they face the likes of Tottenham Hotspur, Everton, Arsenal, and Manchester City before the end of September. A Mourinho-esque collapse doesn't seem all that unlikely.
Tactical problems are also emerging. Conte's system (copied by almost every Premier League club last year) is unlikely to catch any manager by surprise, meaning the Italian must shake things up significantly over the coming months to stay ahead - and yet the absence of high quality reserve players makes this almost impossible. Instead, we can anticipate the same 11 players becoming increasingly tired and demoralised as they play twice a week against well-drilled opponents.
Conte's tactics, as well as his frustrated demeanour, are beginning to resemble the Mourinho meltdown of two years ago, while his use of the Chelsea academy is similarly ominous. Dominic Solanke, Christian Atsu, Tammy Abraham, Nathan Ake, Kurt Zouma, Nathaniel Chalobah, and Ruben Loftus-Cheek have all been allowed to leave this summer despite looking ready to fill the gaps at Chelsea.
Conte, then, is not building for the future and increasingly seems like he doesn't want to stay in London for long. That Roman Abramovic isn't backing him in the transfer window suggests their relationship will only sour further in the next few months, as suggested by Jamie Carragher this week, who said he would be "very surprised" if Conte lasts another 12 months. Many would agree with that statement.
As tensions rise, tactics become stale, and players become tired, it easy to see this squad repeat the same collapse of two seasons ago. In fact, the main difference between then and now is that neither John Terry nor Diego Costa - the off-field and on-field leaders respectively - are still at the club.
Lay Chelsea to for a Top 3 finish at [1.81]