Chelsea’s immediate fears were realized on Sunday. Its season-long fears might have been realized in similar fashion.
Manchester City’s 1-0 victory over the Blues at the Etihad Stadium might not have been as comprehensive as the runaway Premier League leaders’ other big scalps this season, but it was nonetheless a pronouncement of the value of one person and the toll of another.
N’Golo Kante didn’t even make the matchday squad due to illness, and his absence sank Chelsea deep inside its own half for much of the match. That’s understandable; the diminutive midfield ball-hoarder has been the fulcrum of the last two English champions, Chelsea last season and Leicester City the season before.
But this, this arthritic, uninspired performance, was something more. Chelsea nominally lined up in manager Antonio Conte’s preferred 3-5-2, but more accurately it was a 5-4-1. Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso were content to hang as fourth and fifth fullbacks. Willian and Pedro flanked the central midfield duo of Danny Drinkwater and Cesc Fabregas far more often than they did Eden Hazard, who was left out to dry up top.
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Chelsea offered little adventure and even less imagination going forward. This wasn’t a Conte away approach. It was a Jose Mourinho away approach.
Again, it kind of had to be. But at the same time, this Chelsea side looked tired, ground to a pulp by Conte’s hyper-intense management style.
It’s a thin squad to begin with, at least compared to the other Premier League powers. That was negligible with a lighter calendar of fixtures last season. Now with the Champions League back on offer, not to mention an EFL Cup run that ended in the semifinals and an FA Cup run that’s still very much alive, the mileage is piling up.
Is Conte wrong for having Chelsea in this spot? It would be harsh to say so, but there’s no denying the Blues looked as lifeless as they have in any big fixture in recent memory. It was apparent right from the start:
Chelsea finished the game with a measly three shots, and none on target. City itself only had three on target, and turns out it only needed this one:
The Citizens weren’t quite as ballistic as usual, probably due to the fact they were playing their third game in seven days. But instead of making excuses, City was ping-ponging the ball back and forth by the second half and treating the opponents as cones with Chelsea shirts. Even bringing on the out-of-favor Alvaro Morata shortly before stoppage time felt less like a legitimate attempt by the Blues to win and more like a box they figured they might as well check.
Short of adding reinforcements in the summer transfer window, it’s tough to see that changing. A fiery leader like Conte is probably what Premier League clubs need to match the blistering pace Pep Guardiola’s City will set for years to come, but this marriage has felt over for awhile. With four losses in the past five games, Chelsea is falling further away from the top four as well.
In the meantime, Manchester City has all but pried the Premier League trophy from Chelsea’s hands. It’s time for the Blues to find that kind of vigor again.
Joey Gulino is the editor of FC Yahoo and moonlights as a writer. Follow him on Twitter at @JGulinoYahoo.