“It’s tough to win the league, even tougher to retain it” has long been an English football cliche but in recent years, it appears more relevant than ever.
After Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea won the league in 2014-15, he didn’t make it to Christmas of the following campaign, departing with the club languishing in mid-table. Claudio Ranieri followed Leicester’s extraordinary title triumph in 2015-16 with an even more disappointing campaign domestically, lasting until February, and now last year’s triumphant manager, Antonio Conte, has spent much of 2018 so far flirting with the sack. Not since Manchester United in 2007-08 and 200809 has the title been retained.
Conte’s Chelsea side are in fifth position rather than in mid-table like the aforementioned sides but this nevertheless represents an incredible fall from grace for the former Italy and Juventusn coach. To finish outside the Champions League places, as appears likely, would represent a serious failure and the only thing that could save Conte, in terms of his reputation, his job and Chelsea’s Champions League participation for next season, would be winning the competition itself.
It’s a difficult ask but both Rafael Benitez’s Liverpool in 2004-05 and Roberto Di Matteo’s Chelsea in 2011-12 finished outside the top four but won the European Cup. For all their struggles, Conte’s Chelsea are a better side than those two.
There’s also a parallel with the Chelsea side of Di Matteo in terms of how things ended. Having sensationally won the competition in May, Di Matteo was dismissed six months later after failing to advance beyond the Champions League group stages in 2012-13. The fateful defeat came away at Juventus when Di Matteo reacted to the struggles of his traditional centre-forwards by deploying Eden Hazard, then a newcomer, up front in a lone striking role. Chelsea lost, the decision was widely criticised and it may have influenced Roman Abramovich’s decision to pull the trigger.
It’s easy to imagine something similar happening this week if Chelsea lose to Barcelona, with Hazard again likely to start up front.
Conte’s deployment of Hazard has been the major talking point at Chelsea of late because the Italian is seemingly the only man convinced that playing him up front is a worthwhile tactical ploy. Hazard himself clearly prefers playing in a more withdrawn role, either as a No. 10 or an inside-left where he can receive the ball between the lines, influence play regularly and showcase his dribbling and creative potential. Up front he’s disconnected, less involved and peripheral.
It’s unusual to witness a manager so determinedly going against one of football’s most simple tactical rules: play your best player in his best position and then work from there.
In Conte’s defence, there is no easy solution for this trip to the Nou Camp. Chelsea’s first-choice number nine, Alvaro Morata, is badly out of form and seemingly exhausted midway through his first-ever campaign as a genuine regular. Even the prospect of unleashing a Real Madrid youth product at the Nou Camp won’t be enough to tempt Conte.
The “obvious alternative up front,” to give his full job description, is Olivier Giroud. The France international has proved useful for Chelsea so far with his clever back-to-goal play, and has worked with Hazard too. But realistically, in a game where Chelsea will be forced to soak up pressure for long periods, Giroud isn’t ideal. He’ll spend the majority of the game on the halfway line when he specialises as a penalty box striker. The occasionally piece of hold-up play might be useful but counter-attacking sides increasingly prosper more with genuinely speedy strikers who are capable of offering the threat themselves.
A more intriguing move would be the use of Pedro Rodriguez up front away at his former club. Pedro has spent the majority of his career as a wide attacker, making out-to-in runs behind the opposition defence, but if Conte wants someone to stretch the play with speed and mobility, Pedro seems a better bet than Hazard, who could in turn revert to his favoured position on the left.
Presumably Conte’s concern is about Chelsea’s defensive system in that format. Hazard is not a hard worker defensively, something that’s hurt Chelsea badly before against Spanish opposition in Europe as the Belgium star twice switched off to let Atletico’s Juanfran past him in the semifinal of 2014. But Conte clearly didn’t consider this a major problem throughout last season and while there’s a legitimate concern that Chelsea are less secure defensively this season and need more protection from midfield, this shouldn’t be a major concern against Barcelona, who largely play with a narrow quartet in midfield. It should mean that Marcos Alonso is free enough to deal with the sporadic forward charges of Sergi Roberto.
Alonso has improved considerably since this time last year, when he endured a terrible game in the defeat to PSG, but remains a slightly awkward right-back, someone who can be targeted rather than someone you need to make plans for — as the situation was when a peak Dani Alves played right-back for Barca. The Catalan’s chief attacking threat from full-back is now Jordi Alba, enjoying a fine campaign in part because Neymar’s departure means there’s more space to exploit down his flank. Chelsea need a reliable worker up against Alba: it’s a perfect job for Willian, who was the star performer in the reverse fixture.
But it’s the decision on the other flank, and up front, that remains crucial. Hazard seems a shadow of his former self up front and this is surely a contest in which to deploy him wide-left to take advantage of his speed and incision. Hazard has never truly illuminated in this competition and is due for a top performance in a major European contest. But if Conte’s Chelsea fail this week with Hazard up front, it will be the manager rather than player who will be held culpable.