Chelsea fail to get close to Premier League champions form
Chelsea's thrilling 2-2 draw with Arsenal at the Emirates was packed with enough incidents and controversy to ensure the forthcoming League Cup semifinal tie between the sides will be a box office encounter.
That's great news for the coffers of the television companies covering the match and neutral fans looking for more of the same, but at this stage of the competition, as far as Chelsea supporters are concerned, being entertained will be at the bottom of their agenda. The vast majority would happily settle for a dour 2-0 aggregate victory to settle matters and confirm a trip to Wembley.
Last season, such a scenario would have been par for the course. Antonio Conte's side were disciplined, well-drilled and adaptable to the tactical changes the Italian implemented. The Premier League was won at a canter and the expectation was that with some decent additions to the squad, Conte would be able to push on, defend the title and make a serious challenge for additional silverware.
Just past the midpoint of the 2017-18 campaign, however, the harsh reality is that the Stamford Bridge club are off track. The disjointed nature of the performance against the Gunners wasn't good enough and it underlined the gulf in consistency and class that has materialised this season between runaway Premier League leaders Manchester City and the rest of the top flight, the reigning champions included.
Having put Stoke City's makeshift defence to the sword last weekend and given the fact that Arsenal's backline was weakened by injuries to key players, expectations were high the Blues might profit in similar fashion. Indeed, they should have -- had striker Alvaro Morata made the most of the myriad chances that came his way.
Morata's Chelsea career started in fine style with a goal and an assist on his Premier League debut, and with 12 goals in 21 appearances in all competitions to date the Spain international's stats don't look too bad. The problem is the 24-year-old is suffering from a dip in form. This was all too evident against Stoke when he fluffed his lines in front of goal and so it came as little surprise to see his malaise continue against Arsenal.
Conte's lack of faith in back-up striker Michy Batshuayi has been well-documented and is reasonably well-founded. Batshuayi replaced Morata for the final 20 minutes against Stoke and proved equally ineffective and the Belgium international remained an unused substitute at the Emirates despite his fellow striker's woes.
While there's no doubt Chelsea would benefit from signing a proven striker in the transfer window, it would be lame to suggest Conte didn't have options available to him that might have benefitted his team from a goal-scoring perspective against Arsenal.
Against Stoke, Willian provided two assists and scored a penalty. Against Arsenal, the Brazil international, on as a late sub for Eden Hazard, orchestrated Chelsea's second goal within moments of entering the fray. Given his form, Willian had justifiable claims to start the game but Conte continues to use him in a second-string role.
Similarly Pedro, having traumatised Stoke's defence and scored a peach of a goal, found himself neglected on the bench at the Emirates. With Morata out of sorts, Conte might have been better served deploying Hazard, rested at the weekend, as a False. 9 with Willian and Pedro in support. It's a template the Blues boss has used before with mixed results, but one that is always worth trying. Against Arsenal, Conte could have made the switch at half time when it was already clear Morata was in the process of having a shocker.
Conte's selection problems aren't restricted to attack. Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois had to be at the top of his game against Arsenal largely as a result of Chelsea's midfield trio N'Golo Kante, Cesc Fabregas and Tiemoue Bakayoko struggling to contain Jack Wilshere, Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil.
Conte continues to persist with Bakayoko in big games, but the 23-year-old still hasn't got to grips with the English game and his presence limits Kante's effectiveness. Danny Drinkwater is a viable alternative to the former Monaco player and Chelsea look far more cohesive unit when he is paired with Kante, the duo of course a proven partnership as the midfield hub of Leicester City's Premier League winning team.
Right now, it's becoming increasingly evident that Conte is unsure what his best team is. It's frustrating for Chelsea fans who will be hoping that prior to locking horns with Arsenal at Stamford Bridge in the first leg of the League Cup semi next week, the Italian can figure out which players can gel and give the Blues a winning start to the tie.
Mark Worrall is one of ESPN FC's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter: @gate17marco