Chelsea have questions after Man City loss follows Atletico Madrid win
The past seven days have told manager Antonio Conte much about his Chelsea team and left him with plenty to chew over during the international break.
The last-gasp but unquestionably merited 2-1 win over Atletico Madrid on Wednesday was the first time the Spanish club was defeated on home soil by an English side and seemed to herald a bright future for the Blues. The 1-0 loss to Manchester City on Saturday, when Chelsea were thoroughly outplayed for the vast majority of the game, was a jarring reality check.
There are some mitigating circumstances, of course. City had an extra day to prepare for the top-of-the-table clash and were spared any travel fatigue thanks to the fact that their routine Champions League game against Shakhtar Donetsk took place in Manchester. Chelsea had an infinitely tougher task against recent two-time finalists Atletico and had to factor in a return trip from the Spanish capital.
One could also point to the relative expenditures of the two clubs in the past two seasons: City have spent about £316 million on transfer fees compared with about £70m by Chelsea. But while these factors might have contributed to defeat for Chelsea, they should not be used as excuses in the current football landscape.
Instead, Conte might well be asking his club why they did not make sure they secured the transfer of Fernando Llorente instead of letting him slip though their fingers to join Tottenham. After Chelsea striker Alvaro Morata limped off barely a half-hour into the game, Conte chose to introduce Willian to form a front two with Eden Hazard rather than insert specialist striker Michy Batshuayi, the match-winner versus Atletico at the Wanda Metropolitano. If the young striker does not have the manager's trust to be involved in such situations, then surely his very presence in the squad must be questioned -- as must the decision not to make sure there is adequate cover for Morata.
For the opening half-hour, City controlled possession while Chelsea looked dangerous on the break. The loss of Morata -- and with it the reference point of Chelsea's attack -- meant that the balance of the match was tipped definitively in the visitor's favour. With no option of a release ball, and with Willian and Hazard not seeming to have any idea how to combine in their new partnership, Chelsea were screaming out for a physical presence to lead the line, but the only one available was left idling on the bench until the closing stages.
Conte also learned where his side is vulnerable and the approaches that will trouble them in the future. Against Atletico, a team that generally adopts a vertical and narrow style of play, Chelsea had few problems containing the threat of Antoine Griezmann and the supply chain toward him.
Against City, who had Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling hugging the touchlines with Kyle Walker and Fabian Delph buzzing around behind them, Chelsea found life so much more difficult. Chelsea defenders Marcos Alonso and Cesar Azpilicueta had their difficulties marshalling their zones of responsibility from a purely defensive point of view. Alonso also saw his few forays forward continually exploited by the searing pace of Sterling, further blunting Chelsea's ability to counterattack.
Defender David Luiz has been a central figure of Chelsea since his return, and his absence (due to a red-card suspension) was keenly felt on Saturday. That is not a slight against Andreas Christensen, who acquitted himself well enough in the Brazilian's now-familiar role in the middle of a back three.
Where the team missed Luiz was as extra ballast in midfield, a role he performed with distinction in the 2-1 win at Tottenham in August and during the final throes in Madrid on Wednesday. Chelsea midfielder Cesc Fabregas' limitations without the ball are well-known, and Manchester City's domination of possession denied him many opportunities to create. It is highly likely that since Danny Drinkwater is still injured, Luiz would have been deployed in midfield had he been available.
That Chelsea fielded as close to the same lineup in their league clash with City as they did three days earlier in the Champions League suggests that perhaps they do not have the squad to genuinely compete at the sharp end of both competitions. Conte might therefore be forced to select one competition to focus on rather than see challenges in both slowly evaporate.
The loss to City is only one poor result, so perhaps it is premature to rush to judgement. But it was the comprehensive manner of the defeat, contrasting with the dominant victory just days earlier, that was such a shock to the system.
Are Chelsea the team that bossed one of Europe's big hitters, or was it a one-off? Are they really that inferior to their domestic rivals? With a fortnight until Chelsea take the field again, Conte has those questions and more to ponder.
Phil is one of ESPN's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @PhilLythell.