Troubling home form key reason for Chelsea's up-and-down campaign
Chelsea's 3-0 defeat to Roma on Tuesday was undeniably disappointing. From a position of strength in Champions League Group C where a win would have guaranteed qualification to the knockout rounds, the Blues now sit second and still have much work to do in order to progress. The match itself was a strange affair with Chelsea dominating large swathes of the first half with sharp, incisive football before all but rolling over after half-time in the wake of some defensive nightmares. In its own way, the 90 minutes encapsulated their season to date: some moments of genuine excellence coupled with some utter dross.
There are many reasons as to why this up-and-down campaign has come to pass. Looking at the second half at the Stadio Olimpico, fatigue appeared to be an issue. That is a consequence of other factors including the absence of dependable alternatives in the squad -- at least in the eyes of Antonio Conte -- and the subsequent lack of rotation from game to game. The balance of the midfield is completely awry without N'Golo Kante to call upon while injuries themselves have undermined the campaign. Alvaro Morata, Victor Moses, Danny Drinkwater, David Luiz, Eden Hazard, Pedro and Tiemoue Bakayoko have all had physical complaints of differing severity.
The good news is that those issues can potentially be solved. The midfield problems will be eased as Kante is back in full training and is destined to return soon. Conte will also surely soon see the need to rest some of his mainstays such as Cesar Azpilicueta and Marcos Alonso in order to keep them fresh and effective. Injuries, meanwhile, just happen and thankfully none of those affecting Chelsea are too lengthy in nature.
One problem whose solution is not so obvious is the reversing of their troubling home form. In five Premier League games this season, Chelsea have taken just seven points from 15, losing twice already. In all competitions it is marginally better -- played nine, won five, drawn two, lost two -- though that is with the benefit of facing clearly inferior opposition in Championship side Nottingham Forest and Champions League debutants Qarabag.
When compared to last season, those numbers are brought into even sharper relief. Chelsea lost just twice at Stamford Bridge in all competitions, winning 21 of the 23 matches that they played there. Of course, there was no European football to test them but even just focussing on the league, Chelsea won 17 and lost two, the same amount of defeats that they have suffered already in 2017-18.
Strangely, Chelsea's away form has been far superior even in spite of Tuesday's humbling in Italy. There have been damaging defeats to Roma and Crystal Palace but also impressive wins at Tottenham, Leicester and Atletico Madrid.
It is odd that there is such a discrepancy as, in general, Chelsea have not approached home games in a radically different manner to those away. Admittedly, the Tottenham win was a rearguard action fought on the counter-attack and Conte changed his system significantly against Atletico. But on the rest of their travels they played the familiar 3-4-3 system that won them the title, the same system that they have deployed in every home game except for the 1-0 defeat to Manchester City and the 3-3 draw with Roma. Sometimes it is a case of the opposition playing differently, perhaps defending much deeper at Stamford Bridge than they would at their own place. But that wasn't the case with Burnley, Arsenal or Man City, each of whom showed positive intent, albeit in very different ways.
Often poor home form can be due to the pressure that a struggling team feels in front of a frustrated home crowd. Except in Chelsea's case, that could not be further from the truth. This is a team that unexpectedly won the title last season and there is an ocean of goodwill coursing around the stands. There might be some major griping from the keyboard warriors on social media but there has been no overt dissent from those in attendance on match days.
Some of it can be explained when looking at the individual matches. A lack of control on the opening day saw Gary Cahill and Cesc Fabregas both sent off and Burnley duly recording a famous victory. Arsenal could have been dead and buried had Chelsea converted their early dominance into goals but instead Arsene Wenger's side earned a merited draw. After the six-goal thriller with Roma, Conte admitted that he got his tactics wrong. Manchester City, meanwhile, were simply far better than Chelsea on the day.
Teams appear to be coming to Stamford Bridge with more confidence this season with even Qarabag, somewhat naively, trying to play open attacking football before being dismantled. That suggests a lack of fear from visiting sides, a state of affairs that needs to be rectified but which can only be done with consistent performances. Success is built on solid home form and Conte will need to rebuild the ramparts at the Stamford Bridge fortress to have a positive campaign.
Phil is one of ESPN's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @PhilLythell.