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Conte isn’t blameless but the problem at Chelsea started before he arrived

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There’s a leadership vacuum and he can’t solve it by himself

Newcastle United v Chelsea - Premier League Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

A team of Chelsea’s caliber doesn’t lose 4-1 to Watford, 3-0 to Bournemouth and 3-0 to Newcastle — none of them higher than tenth in the table — without the problems being greater than the manager.

Yes, Chelsea have won two titles in the last four years. But the manager in charge of each of those teams has more or less said that they over-performed. Antonio Conte called his title “a miracle.” Jose Mourinho expressed similar sentiments when he struggled in the season after winning his last Premier League championship.

And certainly there’s room to wonder about Antonio Conte’s role, in debate that’s currently raging about what’s wrong with Chelsea. When he either didn’t sign or wasn’t offered a contract extension last summer (nobody involved is publicly saying which it was), did that have an effect on either the players or the manager himself? Did his weekly comments hinting at discontent with Chelsea’s summer transfer business likewise send the wrong message to his players? Did the departure of Michael Emenalo — a man Conte regarded as an ally — contribute to Chelsea’s disastrous 2018 results?

An organization’s culture starts at the top. For the players, that’s the manager. So all of the above are valid questions and concerns.

But they’re not the immediate and most obvious answer for what’s wrong with Chelsea. In any sport, when players are outplayed, then the first place to look is at the players themselves. Are they good enough? Do they want to win badly enough?

Quibble though we might about Chelsea’s depth and transfer business, on any given day we certainly have the players capable of not being run off the pitch by the likes of Watford, Bournemouth and Newcastle. So it’s not a matter of skill.

Which leaves us with will to win. There was a time — it’s rapidly becoming viewed as Chelsea’s Golden Age — when we were drenched in leadership. National team captains flooded the roster, from Terry to Ballack to Cech to Drogba. They expected to win, they demanded a win. They showed up when it mattered.

These days, we’re never really sure which Chelsea team is going to show up, even in the biggest matches. In last year’s FA Cup final, Arsenal only had one thing that Chelsea didn’t: they really, really wanted to win. They certainly weren’t a better team. But they were a hungrier team. Can you imagine Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard or John Terry not having the will you need to win a FA Cup final?

So it says here that Chelsea’s fundamental problem right now is a lack of leadership within the squad itself. I’m not going to engage in the invidious exercise of saying this player is, and that player isn’t, a leader. (Although it’s undeniable that losing Diego “I go into battle you come with me” Costa’s fiery commitment was a huge loss.) What I will do is assert that over the last few years, Chelsea’s recruitment has focused on skill and cost, but overlooked the importance of character and will to win. We have young players. We have good players. What we seem to be missing is the big personalities who can bind the group and get it to fight for a common cause.

The cause of that problem — and the solution to it — doesn’t lie with labor, with the coach and his players. It lies with management, with the people who find the talent and who decide to acquire it. If they don’t give personality the emphasis it needs, then the squad they assemble will be prone to exactly what we see at Chelsea right now: performances that sometimes dazzle and sometimes baffle but are never predictable.

There’s a lot riding on Chelsea’s management reorganization. The club has financial goals. It has expectations for the technical skill of its new players. And those are fine and necessary. But if the new leader of recruitment doesn’t have leadership skills as a line-item in his scouting reports, we’re going to continue seeing results like Newcastle United 3-0 Chelsea, even when a place in the Champions League is potentially at stake.