Lack of discipline becoming a concern for Chelsea with big matches looming
Life is never dull at Chelsea and the start to the new campaign has been typically eventful. It's something Blues supporters are well accustomed to by now as recent seasons have seen early epic dramas envelop Stamford Bridge.
A few months after winning the 2015 Premier League title, then manager Jose Mourinho's world rapidly imploded. A cocktail formed of missed summer transfer targets, a spectacular public spat with club doctor Eva Carneiro and dressing room rebellion proved too much to handle for the Special One, who became the sacked one before Christmas that year.
Mourinho's permanent replacement, Antonio Conte, had a challenging start to his Blues career. A little more than a year ago, back-to-back top flight defeats to Liverpool and Arsenal brought with them intense pressure -- and speculation that the Italian would be out of a job if he didn't find a rapid remedy to Chelsea's woes. The magic elixir came in the form of a tactical switch to 3-4-3 that saw Conte blaze a trail to the title.
This time around, questions are being asked about the ability of certain players to cope with pressure and whether Conte can cope with the fallout. Chelsea's disciplinary record is poor this season and surprisingly it's a clutch of experienced stars who have given the greatest cause for concern.
The opener against Burnley was scarcely 15 minutes old when skipper Gary Cahill was sent off for a reckless lunge on Clarets midfielder Steven Defour. Having niggled referee Craig Pawson into booking him, Cesc Fabregas received a second yellow late on for a rash challenge on Jack Cork. Antonio Rudiger, David Luiz and Marcos Alonso were also yellow-carded by Pawson in an ugly contest that saw Chelsea rapidly concede three goals following Cahill's dismissal. The deficit was irretrievable. The 3-2 home loss a shock.
There was a lesson to be learned. But it seems thus far Conte has failed to provide adequate instruction.
Against Arsenal, it was the turn of Luiz to lose the plot completely, invoking the wrath of referee Michael Oliver for scything into Gunners defender Sead Kolasinac. It was a straight red for Luiz who had already been yellow-carded for catching Laurent Koscielny's face with his boot when attempting an overhead kick.
Cahill, Fabregas and Luiz are all past the age of 30. All three have captained their respective countries as well as Chelsea. Simply speaking, they should know better. Following the 0-0 draw with Arsenal, much was made of the Blues' poor disciplinary record this season. Sixty eight fouls committed made Chelsea the dirtiest team in the Premier League.
Hat trick hero Alvaro Morata stole the headlines in the recent victory against Stoke City, but the 4-0 thrashing could easily have been marred by another Blues sending off. This time it was wing-back Alonso who lost his composure. Having already been booked by referee Mike Dean for a rash challenge on Joe Allen, Alonso was fortunate to escape a second yellow a few minutes later when going in hard on Mame Biram Diouf. Wise perhaps to the inevitability of what might follow, within a matter of moments Conte sensibly withdrew the Spaniard.
Chelsea's next two games, away to Atletico Madrid in the Champions League and at home to Premier League leaders Manchester City, are likely to be high-octane encounters which will require players to maintain mental equilibrium and focus throughout. It seems to be a tall order right now for Conte's side to be able remain cool, calm and collected and it's quite possible that opposing teams, viewing this as Chelsea's Achilles' heel, may deliberately set out to see if they can make capital from the situation.
Conte is no shrinking violet when it comes to expressing his feelings in Chelsea's technical area and there have been noticeable moments of frustration this season as he has reacted to unfavourable developments on the pitch.It may be a little too early to talk about pivotal games this season, but the outcome of the matches against Atletico and City, given that a two week international break follows, will have a huge say in how the mood in the Chelsea camp develops. Right now, despite the disciplinary issues, things look very positive, but things could easily unravel if Conte & Co. fail to deal sensibly with the huge amount of pressure they are about to feel.
Mark Worrall is one of ESPN FC's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter: @gate17marco