Many words can be written about Chelsea’s season. Words about losses. About leadership. About conflict between manager and board. And above all, transfers.
But here’s the short version. By the end of May, Chelsea will have played the seventh-most games in the club’s history with a roster riddled by injury and, in key positions, relying on Premier League newcomers who struggled to adapt. It hasn’t gone well.
Not a great @ChelseaFC season, but it will finish 7th= most games in clubs history— Neil Barnett (@NeilSpyBarnett) April 28, 2018
1 69 2012/13
2 64 2006/07
3 62 2007/08
4 61 1999/00, 2011/12
6 60 1965/66
7 59 1970/71, 2004/05, 2008/09 & 2017/18
By comparison, Chelsea played 47 last season.
An overweight fixture list is the price of success, of course. It’s no coincidence that almost all of our busiest seasons have come in the Roman Abramovich era and fixtures numbering around 50 are standard for most years. In addition to the three domestic competitions, there’s the Champions League and, sometimes, Europa League too (as happened alongside the Club World Cup in the 2012-13 season, our record term for fixtures). Any kind of run in the cups just piles up the games, and Chelsea have played maximum games in the FA Cup (plus a replay) and were only one shy of the maximum in the League Cup.
In the past, our squad was deeper and could handle the schedule a bit better. In the never-ending campaign of the 2012-13 season, in which Champions League winning coach Roberto Di Matteo was fired not even midway through the year and Rafael Benítez was brought to fill in his shoes and get us the Europa League trophy, we had veteran depth all over the pitch.
Not this time however. It’s a problem everyone foresaw a year ago. Antonio Conte was adamant he needed reinforcements for the upcoming season. Although some claim he also played a part in this predicament, keeping his demanding training schedules despite the excess of games, an accusation that Conte denied repeatedly throughout the season. Fingers can be enthusiastically pointed with blame in many directions, to be sure.
And indeed, Chelsea brought in bodies. But the club rolled the dice in the transfer market and came up snake eyes.
Álvaro Morata and Tiemoué Bakayoko may someday be outstanding Premier League players. But they aren’t today and they have been inadequate replacements for Diego Costa and Nemanja Matic. Throw in injuries to newcomers Danny Drinkwater and Ross Barkley (whom Conte seems to prefer as a forward anyway) and the midfield has been left shorthanded.
Cesc Fàbregas, at 30, has already played twelve hours more than he did last season and there are still four games to go. A standard central midfield of Cesc and an overwhelmed N’Golo Kanté is no one’s answer to a successful season in the Premier League.
In the backline, Antonio Rüdiger and Andreas Christensen were added. But David Luiz’s injuries, Gary Cahill’s fall from grace and the lack of a solid back-up option at left wing-back until January (when another injured player who had no Premier League experience came in) all combined to force Conte to overplay his most reliable players. Young Andreas cracked under the demands, with crucial mistakes in crucial games.
Up front, despite Conte’s obvious wishes, no target man was brought in until January. No inside-forward/winger depth was added either, unless you count a crocked Ross Barkley. Throw in Pedro’s dramatic drop in form and again depth was a problem.
Conte could see it coming, felt the consequences of it and didn’t make much of an effort to hide his feelings about it. For veterans of the José Mourinho years, the conflict and politics were painfully familiar.
And so here we are. Out of the Champions League (probably). A coach who burned his bridges and seems to be on the way out. And depth still a problem.
The seventh-heaviest schedule in Chelsea’s history, largely foreseen yet still tackled with a squad poorly equipped to handle it, managed to kill most of Chelsea’s ambitions this season. It’s a story that won’t be written often — it’s not juicy enough, it doesn’t apportion enough blame, there aren’t enough heads rolling — but it’s one that should not be forgotten ... especially for the next time it rolls around perhaps as soon as next season since the Europa League adds even more games than the Champions League.