Sunday’s 3-1 home defeat to Tottenham Hotspur was a sharp return to reality for Chelsea and their supporters. Not only was it the first time in 28 years that Spurs had won at Stamford Bridge, it also left the Blues a sizable eight points off the top four.
It now seems incredibly unlikely that Chelsea will be able to return to the Champions League next season, and with Antonio Conte likely to leave there is the sense that a summer of change is just around the corner.
Unfortunately for Chelsea, this summer of change may well be a difficult one to negotiate, especially given the situations of two of their key players.
Thibaut Courtois and Eden Hazard both have contracts that don’t have long left to run. Courtois’ deal is up in June 2019, whilst the former Lille playmaker has until June 2020 on his contract.
However, both players are equally undecided about staying in London, they have had their eyes on a move to La Liga and if big offers come in for the pair, Chelsea could be forced to cash in simply due to the contractual situations of both and the recent determination to be a self-sufficient club in an era of spiralling transfer fees.
Both Courtois and Hazard are world class in their respective positions, and neither will particularly want to play in the Europa League. Real Madrid has often been seen as the dream destination for Hazard and they will be restructuring their forward line in the summer, whilst Courtois has personal reasons as to why he would like to return to Spain.
The Chelsea model in recent years has been to hire a new coach, have initial success and then dismiss him once results start going awry, only for the cycle to begin once again with a new appointment.
When you look at the current landscape of the Premier League, it’s difficult to see this being possible this time around.
Firstly, there isn’t a coach available that is better than Conte at this moment, his work with undervalued players has been sensational and you do wonder what he would have been able to achieve had Chelsea had the same financial muscle as Manchester City during his time in charge.
Secondly, other teams at the top of the Premier League have all moved ahead of the Blues. Manchester City are so far ahead of everyone and they will again strengthen in the summer, Spurs are getting stronger, Manchester United are the second best team in the country and Liverpool are just a few players short of a true title challenge.
If Chelsea were to lose Courtois and Hazard, hire a coach with less talent than Conte, then it’s almost inconceivable they would be able to return to the top four at the first time of asking, especially with Europa League qualification ensuring they don’t have a free calendar as they did in 2016/17.
There also remain concerns over the actual quality within the Blues senior squad, the Italian coach has often been quick to point out that he gets the very best out of players and you can’t doubt that. Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso are two prime examples, however a lot of the signings in the past two seasons have been geared towards Conte’s 5-3-2 formation.
If a new coach was to arrive and have no use for wing-backs, then Emerson Palmieri, Alonso and Moses could all find themselves back on the bench. There is also a lack of truly elite talent; Courtois, Hazard, Kante and Azpilicueta aside, a lot of the Blues squad is verging on average, at least when compared to Pep Guardiola’s charges.
It’s a bigger job at Stamford Bridge this summer than many people realise, there is a faith from fans in the club’s previous way of working because it’s been so consistently successful, but this time it’s difficult to see it happening.
Conte has bemoaned the fact he hasn’t been able to sign players of the highest standard, those capable of making a difference in the Champions League. He wanted Romelu Lukaku, didn’t get him, he wanted Alexis Sanchez, didn’t get him and he wanted Arturo Vidal, he didn’t get him either.
With Champions League football leaving Stamford Bridge for at least one season, it’s difficult to imagine the club being able to attract that calibre of player, whilst their Premier League rivals are only going to get stronger.
Paying for a new stadium is a cost that impacts any football club, we saw the debilitating impact the Emirates Stadium move had on Arsenal, whilst Tottenham Hotspur will feel the pinch, although are on a strong footing in footballing terms in the meantime.
Chelsea aren’t on such steady ground, their squad has a litany of players who are performing above themselves under Conte’s tutelage, once the Italian is gone there isn’t any guarantee that these players will keep their performance levels up.
The funds aren’t there to perform major surgery to a squad without selling their two best players, there is no easy way out for Chelsea this time around, their problems go an awful lot deeper than simply the coach.
Written by Chris Winterburn
Follow Chris on Twitter @cmwinterburn
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