3d businessman is showing a red card to another that is leaving

After the highs of 2016-17, this season has been a huge let-down for Chelsea fans, from the opening-day defeat to Burnley to crashing out of the Champions League at the hands of Barcelona.

Along the way, Antonio Conte’s side have managed some good performances, including victories over Tottenham and Manchester United and a solid draw in the first leg of their Champions League tie with Barcelona, but the positives have been balanced with negatives.

Losses to Watford, Bournemouth, Crystal Palace and West Ham have led to Chelsea slipping out of the top four, with the FA Cup their only remaining route to silverware.

Perhaps most significantly for Conte’s own future, he was forced to acknowledge in February that the club may not finish in a Champions League qualification spot.

Most bookies seem to agree with that assessment, rating Manchester United, Liverpool and Tottenham as stronger bets to finish in the top four, but it may not have gone down well with the Chelsea owner.

The roots of this season’s struggles lie in last summer’s transfer business.

Instead of building on a Premier League-winning side, Chelsea ended up releasing two of their most important players in Nemanja Matić and Diego Costa.

Where Conte had hoped to be adding to the squad, he spent much of his time trying to replace two big holes in the first team, and worse still, has failed to do so, leaving the front line less potent than last year and putting additional pressure on N’Golo Kanté at the heart of the Chelsea midfield.

With a squad that is probably weaker than last year’s, Conte has had to campaign on four fronts this season. Last time around, he had the luxury of being able to rest his best players while Chelsea’s rivals were busy playing in Europe, but this season the fixtures have come thick and fast and the lack of depth in the squad has been revealed.

The final problem has been the failure to adapt tactically. Last year, Chelsea set the tactical agenda, thanks to Conte’s 3-4-3 formation, which offered both defensive solidity and creativity.

However, this season, opponents have found ways to negate that tactical advantage, by overloading the weakened Chelsea midfield or by targeting the space behind the wing-backs. Conte’s response – to switch to a 3-5-1-1 formation – has been only partially effective and is in any case a reactive move rather than a positive change.

To what extent can Conte be blamed for Chelsea’s current situation? The fact that they have had more fixtures to play this season is not a failing, but the inadequate transfer dealings were largely down to him, and the inability to develop a tactical Plan B is most certainly his failure.

His managerial record entitles him to respect and it would be premature to dispense with his services without giving him the chance to put things right – but whether he gets that chance will probably depend on finishing in the top four of the Premier League in May.

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