If Antonio Conte was sending a subtle message to Chelsea’s money men by selecting a bench littered with inexperienced youth products, his players delivered the same line through a megaphone. The first weekend of the season isn’t the time to be casting judgements on entire campaigns, but the nature of Chelsea’s shambolic defeat will have lasting consequences. The ghost of 2015/16 still looms large over Stamford Bridge.
If Arsenal and Liverpool’s first games of the season had shown off the Premier League’s bonkers side, it was left to the defending champions to carry that baton into Saturday teatime. This was surely the most surprising opening-day defeat in Premier League history, given the respective fortunes of the two teams last season. Burnley took seven points from a possible 57 away from home in 2016/17; Chelsea took 51 from a possible 57 at home. This was something truly extraordinary.
Following Arsenal and Liverpool’s lead, Chelsea’s commitment to self-inflicted damage was impressive. Gary Cahill was sent off for a lunge fewer than 15 minutes into his first league game as club captain, Jeremie Boga was substituted 18 minutes into his Premier League debut. Sam Vokes was twice given the freedom of the penalty area. Vokes’s goals sandwiched a wonderfully thrashed finish from Stephen Ward to send Burnley above Huddersfield to the top of the table at half-time. The two clubs eventually swapped in the top two positions, and that is not a sentence I ever expected to write.
Conte’s mood this summer can best be described as uneasy. There is no doubt that Chelsea have upgraded each of the first-teamers they sold, but no doubt too that Conte’s is a squad in desperate need of reinforcements to cope with the added workload of Champions League participation. There is an argument that early-season setback could be a useful bargaining chip when persuading Roman Abramovich and Michael Emenalo of the urgency of investment in the next three weeks.
Yet this kind of calamity can never be given a positive spin, not after the disaster of 2015/16. Chelsea were timid with 11 men and calamitous with ten before being bizarrely resurgent with nine. Conte watched from the touchline with hand on chin, in disbelief at his team’s refusal to display any positional competence until they got their first goal back. Even N’Golo Kante gave the ball away five times in the first half, and twice in dangerous positions. These are signs of the apocalypse.
Conte will know only too well that goodwill is a commodity that can quickly evaporate, and needs only to speak to his permanent predecessor for details. Chelsea started with Alvaro Morata on the bench, but his introduction after an hour prompted the chant of “Diego, Diego” from a section of the home support. They remember that Costa, so firmly alienated by his manager, did plenty to earn Chelsea their last two Premier League titles.
Conte will at least have been pleased by his new striker’s impact, but even that was outdone by the dimness of Cesc Fabregas picking up a second yellow card having been given the first for sarcastically applauding referee Craig Pawson. Chelsea will now travel to Wembley next Sunday with two suspensions to accompany their injuries.
This is why Conte is so insistent that further spending on Chelsea’s squad is required, and why the club is walking a tightrope should they not carry out his wishes. It is not just Champions League participation that threatens to rot those darling buds of May but the complacency that arrives post-triumph and the mental and physical difficulties in pushing on once more.
Suddenly, everyone wants to beat the champions. On the first weekend of the season, Chelsea managed to beat themselves.