AN HISTORIC SEASON
Chelsea’s worst domestic campaign under Abramovich’s affluent ownership ended in appropriately underwhelming fashion, with another draw at Stamford Bridge. The worst title defence in Premier League history had been clouded with considerable controversy and several lethargic performances, even the saving grace of 2009, Guus Hiddink, failed to resurrect the club’s most disappointing season since 1996.
Despite the normality of the Dutchman's reign after the turbulent Mourinho months, a woeful home record and many inert performances prevented any purposeful progress. Chelsea’s ascent up the table concluded in an underwhelming 10th place.
Initially, the 69-year-old’s appointment managed to restore some much-required sanity at SW6. A fifteen-match unbeaten run did represent substantial improvement, especially considering the dismal depths that the players plummeted to at the beginning of the season, but more draws than wins took the shine off it. In March, back-to-back home draws sandwiching a degrading 2-0 loss at the
hands feet of Romelu Lukaku, and an unfortunate 1-2 defeat against PSG effectively ended any hope of silverware or European qualification. The season was effectively over.
Hiddink’s men concluded the club’s worst season in 20 years with a total of twelve victories, fourteen draws, and twelve defeats – amassing to a total of 50 points.
Over the course of Abramovich’s ownership the Blues have averaged a points tally of 79.3. Prior to the 2015/16 season that figure stood at an incredibly respectable tally of 81.8. Finishing this season well over 30 points adrift of the average total is a clear indication of the club's frightful decline. Just twelve wins is less than half of the previous average (24.6), while the twelve losses is more than double the previous average (5.9). All in all, a woeful decline from previous fortunes.
REASONS FOR CHELSEA’S DECLINE
It is incredibly difficult to identify one singular reason for Chelsea’s frightful collapse. No one, pundits and supporters alike, expected such an unexpected fall from grace. At least three contributing on-pitch factors can be identified.
- Dreadful home form — a win rate of 26.3% and just five wins at home in the Premier League meant that Chelsea dropped 23 points at home, or almost 50% of the available 57.
- Absence of Kurt Zouma — Chelsea weren't especially amazing even before Zouma's season-ending ACL injury, but in his 28 starts, Chelsea recorded 12 clean sheets. In the other 24 games, Chelsea only managed 2.
- Courtois' woeful form — Major injury and multiple red cards aside, Courtois conceded 38 goals in 30 games, conceding more than a goal-per-game for the first time since leaving Genk in 2011. He's regarded as one of the most prestigious talents in world football, but he certainly did not live up that billing this season.
THE WAY FORWARD
The abysmal season means that 2016-17 will be the first season for Chelsea without European commitments since 1996. As unfavorable as that may be, it might carry surprising benefits.
Unquestionably, Champions League participation is responsible for some of the finest nights in the history of the club — the pinnacle is that indelible night in Munich — and losing out on European football for the first time since Roman bought the club is damaging, especially from a financial perspective. It will certainly affect the club’s ability to lure the most prestigious talents to SW6.
However, it should ease the effects of fixture congestion on the squad, giving players more time to recover and prepare for each game. The latter could be especially beneficial with a new coach in place, who may be new to the league but is no stranger to winning. Given our luxury of a sparse calendar that will not be available to many of competitors, and the assumption that Conte and the players will be looking to restore the club's winning tradition in the forthcoming season, I fully expect the club to mount a sincere title challenge.
Naturally, there is an evident difference between expectations and fulfilling those expectations. Next season is intriguingly poised to become the most competitive Premier League season to date; achieving a top-four finish could represent an enormous challenge. The points tallies required to win the league or finish in the Champions League spots could be some of the lowest ever seen (so much parity and talent!), but Chelsea will likely need to improve by 30 or 20 points, respectively, to achieve these targets.
Antonio Conte is a remarkable, tactically astute manager and a fine motivator, yet to expect instant success would be rather fanciful. Whilst considering Roman’s ruthless and often impulsive nature, a top-four finish is likely to be Conte’s target in his debut season in the Premier League.
Chelsea face an enormous challenge to return to where we belong. The team's success will depend on several factors, just as our lack of success this season did, but the summer transfer window could be a most pivotal factor. Conte may just be a "first-team head coach" but he must be allowed to help shape the squad to his personal beliefs.
The way forward won't be easy. But we must do everything in our power to ensure that this season was just a blip rather than a sign of things to come.