Chelsea are having a wobble, but the identity of the clubs chasing them should still see them safely into next year’s Champions League.
After his team’s 4-2 home defeat by Arsenal, Chelsea head coach Thomas Tuchel seemed in equal parts flummoxed and frustrated. He blamed the bumpy Stamford Bridge pitch for the state of Chelsea’s performance, overlooking the fact that you might expect a bumpy pitch to be more familiar to those that are more used to playing on it. He also expressed sympathy with the Chelsea supporter whose remonstrations with Cesar Azpilicueta, presumably over the defender’s ill-advised attempt to give Bukayo Saka a cuddle inside his own penalty area a few minutes earlier, had led to an exchange of words as the players trudged from the pitch at full-time.
With seven games of their season left to play, there have been signs of nerves at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea have now conceded 11 goals in their last three home matches. Against Arsenal, they were like a pair of cheap headphones: all middle, with no top or bottom to speak of. They dominated possession throughout, but had weak spots aplenty at the heart of their defence, with individual errors responsible for three of the Arsenal goals. Arsenal looked dangerous every time they broke. Chelsea had the ball more, but were comfortably smothered, at least in the second half. From the point at which Eddie Nketiah put Arsenal 3-2 up, the result never seemed in that much doubt.
Things are getting a little tighter at the top of the Premier League, more so than Tuchel may be comfortable with. The gap between Chelsea and Arsenal is now five points, and with the Gunners playing Manchester United on Saturday lunchtime and Spurs facing Brentford on Saturday evening, all it requires is a win from either north London club and that will be down to two points by the time Chelsea host West Ham United on Sunday afternoon. And West Ham are, as we’ve already seen this season, a team capable of beating Chelsea.
There are huge asterisks next to the idea that Chelsea could miss out on a Champions League place. For one thing, they’ll have two games in hand by Sunday afternoon, so that shrinking of the gap is somewhat misleading. And the chasing pack consists of Arsenal, Spurs and Manchester United; even if Chelsea’s buffer shrinks, few would reliably expect any of those teams to pick up maximum points. They’ve all repeatedly demonstrated how flaky they can be this season. Chelsea would have to lose two games more than two of their rivals to miss out, and with just a few games left to play, that seems close to implausible.
Every remaining match has the potential to be a booby trap for the teams in fourth, fifth and sixth. Spurs, for example, still have to go to Liverpool, while playing Brentford at the moment feels like another Brighton-esque accident waiting to happen. Arsenal’s revival has thus far lasted one game. Manchester United’s defeat at Liverpool has thrust them into a new world of torment. Chelsea stumbling enough to let two of these three through on the blindside remains highly unlikely. But it’s tenable – and that wasn’t the case a few weeks ago.
That attacking line remains problematic. Much has been said about Romelu Lukaku’s return to Stamford Bridge, about the specifics of him not fitting Chelsea’s system, and about the folly of spending so much money to take him back to the club in the first place. But the bottom line is the bottom line: Lukaku was signed for goals and he hasn’t delivered them. He’s scored just five in the Premier League. This has been part of a broader issue for their attackers, with only Mason Mount having reached double figures in the league. For the current world and European champions, that is clearly too low a return.
While goals have been an issue for Chelsea’s attackers, they haven’t been so much of a problem for the team in a wider sense. Chelsea have had 16 different scorers this season in the Premier League alone. They scored six in their previous match at Southampton – though how much of that was down to Saints having their inexplicable but now apparently inevitable annual defensive meltdown is open to question – and three at the Bernebeu against Real Madrid. But while spreading the goals around the team is not a bad thing, having the reliability of a 25-goal-a-season player is the why clubs pay nine-figure sums for strikers in the first place.
The more you score, the greater your tolerance can be for conceding. Liverpool have had isolated moments this season when their defence has failed to function as it should, but their gilded attacking options give them the ability to respond. They’ve drawn five games 2-2 and one 3-3 this season, conceding twice a couple of times in their perfect Champions League group stage. Chelsea don’t have a reliable goalscorer, whether their defence is malfunctioning or not.
Less easy to explain has been the state of the defence, though it is possible that several players could be a little distracted. Andreas Christensen has already signed a pre-contract with Barcelona and will be leaving in the summer. How motivated is he supposed to be to stretch every sinew for Chelsea right now? Antonio Rudiger still hasn’t agreed terms for a new deal and vultures are subsequently circling. In a game of fine margins, it may only take one lapse of concentration to prove costly.
There’s no doubting the uncertainty surrounding Stamford Bridge at the moment. The reported attendance for the Arsenal match was 32,249 – some 9,500 short of capacity – and the empty seats on display around the ground were a sobering reminder of greater struggles elsewhere in the world. But with the club in the middle of its takeover and the identity of the new owners not yet known, Chelsea’s vacillation is real. That will remain the case at the very least until the identity of the club’s new owners have been confirmed and their intentions for how they’ll run it have been made clear.
With sparkling at Southampton and winning in the Bernabeu contrasting sharply with shipping four goals at home in successive Premier League matches, Chelsea have become the Jekyll and Hyde of the Premier League of late. It is a reflection of the uncertainty has been hanging over the club since sanctions were ordered against Roman Abramovich two months ago. All that we can say for sure is that those days are over, and despite the shortcomings of the last few weeks, they will almost certainly be back in the Champions League for next season. No-one can guarantee what the operation of the club will look like by then, but the worst of Thomas Tuchel’s frustrations should soon be coming to an end.