MANCHESTER, England – After a season in which they dominated the Premier League, winning the title by seven points, Chelsea are looking far from comfortable after just one game of the new campaign.
The 3-2 loss to Burnley on Saturday, in a game where Chelsea ended with nine men on the field, was a disappointing start. But the problems at the club go deeper than just one setback on the field.
Nor is the standoff with Brazilian-Spanish striker Diego Costa the source of the malaise at Stamford Bridge. It does, however, point towards the possible source of Chelsea’s problems – tension between the manager, Antonio Conte, and the club’s hierarchy.
Chelsea’s Russian owner, Roman Abramovich, remains, as always, silent in the background. But Conte has done little in his public statements to challenge the view that he is unhappy with the club’s transfer dealings.
The club have invested a combined 124 million pounds ($159.59 million) on Alvaro Morata from Real Madrid, Antonio Rudiger from AS Roma and Tiemoue Bakayoko from Monaco, but Conte has been clear that he has a “small squad” for the double challenge of a title defence and a Champions League campaign.
Asked on the eve of the season why more new players have not been bought, he said: “Everyone is trying to do their job but, for sure, I think this question is good for the club – not for me.
“What do they tell me? We have to wait for the best moment, the best solution. We have to wait,” he said.
The sale of midfielder Nemanja Matic to title rivals Manchester United appeared to many a strange decision. Whether the club or the manager wanted him to leave is a matter of dispute.
United manager Jose Mourinho – a former Chelsea manager – said on Sunday, after Matic’s excellent debut in a 4-0 win over West Ham, that he had not sought to unsettle his former player and that something happening at Chelsea opened the door for the move.
“It depends on what is happening, or what was happening behind doors,” Mourinho said. “I don’t know.
“But I didn’t disturb him, I didn’t disturb Chelsea. I never thought it was possible unless something special was happening, and it looked like something was happening because his agent told me, ‘You can have him; you just have to pay’.”
Conte was widely reported to be disappointed that his club couldn’t sign Romelu Lukaku, who moved from Everton to United, and there are suggestions that the club is divided over what kind of player they should be targeting.
But there are appears to be something of a “briefing war” now under way at the club.
A day after Costa gave an interview criticised the club, on Tuesday, The Times quoted unidentified “senior Chelsea sources” as saying Conte wanted only experienced players ready to do a short-term job, but the club was more interested in younger players.
Chelsea’s squad may still be too small, but that raises the question of why the club continue to off-load so many of their young players.
Nathan Ake went to Bournemouth and Nathaniel Chalobah to Watford. Liverpool signed Dominic Solanke. In addition, the Blues have, this off-season, loaned out Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Tammy Abraham, Kurt Zouma, Izzy Brown and Kasey Palmer.
The squad will be stretched even thinner for Sunday’s game at Wembley against Tottenham Hotspur.
Captain and defender Gary Cahill and Spanish midfielder Cesc Fabregas were both sent off against Burnley and will be suspended for the London derby.