Why it's no time for Chelsea to panic
By now it has been well established that Chelsea are having a sub-par season. Hope for a late-season comeback has been replaced by indifference towards the team's failures. However, despite significant losses to Burnley and West Ham, there is yet light at the end of the tunnel for the Blues.
It is certainly feasible Chelsea are suffering from their well-documented second-season syndrome, but the following must also be considered. There are currently six teams with the strength to compete for a Champions League place. Only four will win one. Luck and timing are factors as much as any shortcomings in the squad or with the manager. It is not a total club meltdown. If it is a lack of will or spirit, one should remember it is not so easy to replace a player with such strong ties to the club as John Terry or Frank Lampard.
Chelsea fans are like those at any other top club. They expect to win. Every time. All the time. But it is simply not possible.
At some point, you must acknowledge the work Manchester City has done. And United, Liverpool, Spurs, and Arsenal. All are committed to improving. The Premier League's dynastic era is ending. Parity is becoming the norm.
On the bright side, there is more than one honour for which to compete. Chelsea are now in the FA Cup semifinals, with a favourable draw against Southampton.
In Europe, they draw wasn't so favourable. La Liga's invincible candidate, Barcelona, exposed the flaws in the Blues squad. Yet Chelsea didn't make it easy. Willian's form was inches from putting Antonio Conte's side ahead 3-0 in the first leg. That's not so much a what-if as an indication of how narrow the margin for error is at the top, and how close Chelsea still are.
One issue, at least, is clear. Antonio Conte has lost the dressing room. The way Chelsea allowed themselves -and history- to be brushed aside by Spurs' first win at Stamford Bridge in 28 years demonstrated as much. The commitment wasn't there.
Clearly talented players like Alvaro Morata have simply failed to hit top speed this season after showing promise. As the season has worn on, world-beaters Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois have also begun to look off colour. That mental fatigue doesn't bode well for their World Cup hopes.
Conte's once stunning forms of counter-attack and impenetrable defence now are very clearly conquerable aspects of Chelsea's make-up. It's a bit like Rubik's Cube. People were initially stymied by the challenge. Soon enough people could solve it in seconds while blindfolded. Conte never understood he needed to give opponents a new puzzle to decipher.
Luckily, there has always been more than one manager who can guide the London club to success. Now that Thomas Tuchel has said "Nein, danke," Leonardo Jardim sits atop the pile of European managers who fit the bill for Chelsea Football Club. The Venezuelan-born Portuguese national is not only an astute tactician but adept at drawing the best from available players.
Chelsea's youth team is burgeoning with talent at the moment. He's a natural choice to develop rising stars including Calum Hudson-Odoi, Ethan Ampadu, and even a still young Ross Barkley and his own former player Tiemoue Bakayoko. As well, Michy Batshuayi and Tammy Abraham might be coaxed back to Stamford Bridge rather than sold when their loans expire. Even if they do not come back, even if out-of-contract players such as Hazard and Courtois leave, Jardim has proven masterful in bringing together an overhauled squad.
There are clear issues at Chelsea, but there is no time to panic or mourn the underwhelming season. Or any need. Conte will almost certainly leave and, as has occurred previously, the board will acquire an arguably better replacement. If they act swiftly and with intelligence, the Blues can roar back again.