Antonio Conte not solely at fault as Chelsea watch Man City disappear over the horizon
Manchester United's shock home defeat to bottom club West Brom last Sunday finally confirmed this season's least surprising outcome, Manchester City are Premier League champions. City's inexorable rise to dominance during the course of the campaign has been phenomenal.
Having finished third last season, 15 points behind title-winners Chelsea, Pep Guardiola's side have more than made up the difference. Presently, table-topping City are 27 points better off than Antonio Conte's charges who lie a distant fifth. That's a seismic swing of 42 points -- and with five games remaining the gap could widen further.
It's a scenario which Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich must view as disastrous especially given the associated failure to qualify for the Champions League. Last July, Conte half-joked about avoiding the "Mourinho season" that the Blues had endured prior to his arrival, but the boom and rapid bust that his predecessor experienced in 2015 has to all intents and purposes been repeated. Mourinho was sacked midway through the 2015-2016 season and given Abramovich's historical intolerance of perceived failure, it's remarkable that Conte is still in a job.
Back-to-back hammerings at the hands of also-rans Bournemouth and Watford coupled with lamentable exits to Arsenal in the Carabao Cup and Barcelona in the Champions League must have severely tried the Russian's patience and his thoughts on Saturday when Chelsea went 2-0 down to relegation-threatened Southampton would have been interesting to gauge. Abramovich wasn't at St. Mary's but chairman Bruce Buck, was. It's not inconceivable that text messages were exchanged between the two and that Conte might have been 30 minutes from getting sacked had Chelsea lost.
As it transpired, the Italian made changes and substitute centre-forward Olivier Giroud sparked a revival, netting two goals either side of and Eden Hazard strike. It wasn't a famous victory, because it was only Southampton. A famous victory would have been a comeback from 3-1 down to beat bitter rivals Tottenham a couple of weeks ago. Simply speaking, Chelsea should never have been in the position where they found themselves 2-0 down to the Saints, 3-1 down to Spurs or being beaten by Bournemouth and Watford. By the standards of excellence Abramovich has governed the club by since he acquired it in 2003, it's not good enough. The inertia in the boardroom as far as dealing with the problem is a bit of a mystery.
Chelsea erratic form, the occasional use of negative tactics, alleged faltering relationships with key players and constant talk of his team "suffering" haven't helped Conte's cause with Chelsea supporters either. He has, by and large, retained their sympathy principally because it is widely perceived he wasn't given the type of backing by Abramovich and his board required to build on last season's success.
Looking beyond Conte for reasons behind Manchester City's success and Chelsea's demise, it could be argued that Guardiola got what he needed to improve his side. City under the ownership of Sheikh Mansour have been structured in a cohesive way that facilitates team development. Experienced director of football Txiki Begiristain was poached from Barcelona in 2012 to instil a uniform football philosophy right through the club and he has succeeded. Clearly Begiristain also has outstanding credibility in the game that along with Mansour's cash makes the signing of world-class talent a breeze at the Etihad.
At Stamford Bridge, Conte hasn't had the same style of backroom infrastructure to work with. Abramovich has used his cash to buy countless players and build a state of the art training academy, but he appears to have neglected the need to hire a visionary like Begiristain who can join everything up. It's hard to imagine that a billionaire businessman like Abramovich hasn't cast his eye enviously on the developments at City where the template for sustained success is now firmly in place. Surely his wish should be to at least replicate if not better it?
Chelsea's long-term technical director Michael Emenalo, whose questionable football pedigree left him open to criticism by Blues fans, quit his position in November last year and has yet to be replaced. Emenalo's unexpected departure has certainly created the opportunity for Abramovich to recruit an experienced and well-respected replacement who can redress the imbalance that exists between City and Chelsea. As yet, though, there are no concrete developments on this front. Indeed, the only plans visible to supporters at present are those for the impending redevelopment of Stamford Bridge.
A long-term project, the new stadium could become a white elephant if the football side of the club is negligently managed. In the past, Abramovich's cash has been the go-to quick-fix to remedy problems on the pitch but this time around it doesn't look that easy. Replacing Conte and throwing cash at the transfer market might help but it isn't the right solution for Chelsea, who will continue to lag behind City until Abramovich takes the necessary steps to put his club back on an even footing.
Mark Worrall is one of ESPN FC's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter: @gate17marco