Chastened Chelsea must regroup with plenty still to play for

All told, 2021 will be remembered fondly by Chelsea fans. A second Champions League title, a talented squad littered with academy graduates who command first-team spots and a structure in place on and off the pitch to hold a position as a dominant force in European football.

Yet after Mike Dean blew the full-time whistle on the last game of an impressive year, the majority of those leaving Stamford Bridge walked out with a deep sense of frustration. Perhaps even premature feelings of “what might have been”.

A 1-1 draw with Brighton and Hove Albion confirmed in the 91st minute by Danny Welbeck’s equaliser capped off a dispiriting December. One that started with them a point clear at the top to now, after Manchester City held onto their 1-0 lead five miles away at Brentford, trailing the defending Premier League champions by eight.

This last month has had nine of the 14 goals conceded so far, contributing to an overall 11 points dropped from winning positions this season – a record only better than Burnley, Leeds United, Southampton and Newcastle United. A point more than they relinquished in the entire 2020/21 campaign.

The 3-2 defeat to West Ham on 4 December allowed Pep Guardiola’s side to assume pole position, and the draws against Everton, Wolves and now Brighton ceded further ground. And they were lucky to get that last one.

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Injuries have stacked up, with Reece James (hamstring) and Andreas Christensen (lower back) now joining those already sidelined. Positive Covid-19 tests and close contact isolations have also taken their toll, though Chelsea can wear absentees better than most others. But the atmosphere around the club has moved from one of optimism to exasperation at how a seemingly well-oiled machine will splutter into 2022.

And anger, of course. Nothing typified that more than Thomas Tuchel’s terse post-match engagements on Wednesday night. He was curt with the Amazon Prime interviewer immediately after full time and was still seething when he moved on to talk to the written media.

“It was clear we would struggle,” he said in his press conference. “We have simply way too many players who we don’t know what we can demand. We have long injuries, they come from Covid, I simply don’t know what they are capable of doing.

“I don’t know what I can expect from my players in terms of physicality, intensity or minutes. Nobody knows anymore because we have never done something like this.”

Amid his seething came a concession of sorts. Asked whether Chelsea, in second, were still in the hunt for Premier League number six, he let loose.

“How should we be in it? We have seven Covid cases. We have five or six players out for six or more weeks. How should we compete in a title race?”

The short answers, the vexed tones and the piercing eyes that featured during his darker periods at Borussia Dortmund and especially Paris Saint-Germain were getting their first outing in Chelsea stash. But even had he sat down with his cap back to front, sighed and offered a simple, “football – amirite?”, it is clear here is in the midst of the most challenging period of his tenure so far.

Chelsea were left frustrated by Brighton

Perhaps he might consider that a blessing considering he is four weeks shy of a full year in the job. In that time, Chelsea were shaken out of their funk to finish fourth last term, and march through to Champions League glory with a ruthless efficiency.

Who knows, Manchester City may slip up, whether through a blip or otherwise, though even Omicron is having a hard time getting close to them. Nevertheless, back-to-back European Cups are still on the cards, with a stronger squad and a favourable first knockout round opponent in Lille, currently eighth in Ligue 1. Tottenham Hotspur await in the League Cup semi-finals, and then there’s the FA Cup. And *checks notes* the Club World Cup in February. Who could forget that?

The point is, there are plenty of ways Chelsea can end this season and consider it a success without getting their hands on the league trophy. The challenge, however, is emerging from this slump and learning a few lessons.

Because while Covid has hampered the club, the issues of a lack of connectivity through each tier of the 5-2-3 formation, along with uncertainty over the right combinations in the top and middle of that system. Despite their depth, only with Thiago Silva in the middle of their back three, N’Golo Kante putting in his typical two-man shift in the middle and James letting the spirit of Dani Alves work through him are they at their best.

Silva faces a spell on the sidelines after being forced off with a hamstring injury on Boxing Day, likewise James who was subbed off on 27 minutes against Brighton. Kante, who had dropped to the bench having damaged his knee, was only able to play 23 minutes at the end, though still managed to change the complexion of the match.

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The return of Romelu Lukaku, who scored his second goal in a week and looks incredibly sharp, is a welcome boost to the frontline, and gives Chelsea a more pronounced threat and better shape. Mateo Kovacic’s 90 minutes on his first start in two months was another plus.

But for all the validity of Tuchel’s complaints at the schedule and the demands on his players, he needs to cycle through what is left at his disposal to get through the next few weeks while identifying a way to ensure December’s slump is just an exception. If that’s through a new system or a better plan B, so be it.

Their 2022 kicks off on Sunday when they welcome Liverpool, a fixture that has gone from a significant marker in an engaging three-way bout to a decider for the team watching from afar. A meeting of two German managers exasperated by the festive grind, whose mood will be even fouler if they emerge with anything other than a win. .

Despite the short turnaround, Tuchel was unwilling to engage in any talk about how he might approach this fixture. The days ahead will be about assessing who might be fit to start and for how long. Then working out how best to get at Liverpool.

And sure, success may only be to put some daylight between themselves and third place. But scalping a rival would be a great way to start a new year that still has much to offer. Just maybe not the Premier League title.

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