You wouldn't know it to look at him on the touchline, all wide-eyed screaming and frenzied gesticulation, but Antonio Conte probably has the easiest job in English football. A squad full of former champions, over £100 million (about $131 million US) to spend in the transfer market, and all he has to do is finish higher than tenth to be moving in the right direction. You could do it, probably, as long as you could persuade John Terry that you still liked him.
That's one side to Chelsea's story. Here's another one.
In truth, the wide-eyed screaming and frenzied gesticulation has nothing to do with anything; that's just how Antonio Conte gets through the day. But if this were how Chelsea's manager had decided to express his inner turmoil at the size of the job he's taken on, it would be hard to blame him. Charged with returning Chelsea to the top of the Premier League, he's been given a squad full of players that almost all disappointed last season, had a transfer window of mixed returns, and has a lot of work to do. After all, Jose Mourinho's Manchester United only have to improve a mere four places on last season to win the league, Pep Guardiola's City just three. Conte needs to jump a whopping nine.
The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, but that would be less fun. And it would also fail to highlight the fundamental weirdness of Chelsea this season, which has leaked over from last. Though they were ultimately overpowered in the weirdness stakes by Leicester, Chelsea's 2015-16 was still remarkably peculiar, a collapse from 'the best' to 'pretty rubbish, actually' unprecedented in English football's recent history. This time, we can be fairly certain that Chelsea will probably get a bit better, but whether that amounts to first, fourth or somewhere is hard to answer with any sort of confidence. This is a job that has, at this moment in time, an exceptionally low bar but still comes, as it always will while Roman Abramovich is around, with extremely high expectations. It's the easiest and most difficult job in the league.
Not least because Chelsea have a squad list heavily annotated with question marks. In goal, Thibaut Courtois hasn't managed to overcome his skittishness or shake the ever-present air that he'd really rather be somewhere else. The center of defense amounts any two (or maybe, at some point, three) from a collection of players -- David Luiz, John Terry, Gary Cahill, Kurt Zouma, Branislav Ivanovic -- who are all capable of playing very well indeed, but who all have the potential to be fundamentally unreliable in a variety of exciting ways. The midfield seems settled in terms of personnel -- N'Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic doing the mucky stuff, and Oscar flanked by Eden Hazard and Willian doing the pretty -- though it's noticeable that the preseason experiments with 4-2-4 have been abandoned, presumably in part due to the lack of the right midfielder.
And also, presumably, down to the shallowness of the striking options. At times last summer it looked like Diego Costa might be leaving; instead he's stayed, and is playing like a reformed version of himself. That's not reformed in the moral sense, but in the acrimoniously-broken-up-but-now-back-together-again rock band sense: he's playing the hits, he's playing them extra angrily and, while it's working at the moment, everything's definitely heading towards violent acrimony. The goals are coming and the red cards aren't. This isn't likely to last, but it's mighty useful for the moment.
It all, ultimately, feels very familiar in terms of shape and personnel. This isn't necessarily a problem -- most of these players did win a title just two short seasons ago -- but it does highlight precisely how tricky the job is for any club to rebuild themselves after a disaster. Managers, as individuals, change completely every time, but squads tick over to a slower beat. The expectation is that a new boss means grand sweeping changes, that formations will be torn apart and everybody's performances will instantly jump four or five marks out of ten. In reality, changing something as complicated and intricate as a football team is a slow, iterative process, even when a manager gets all the signings he wants.
We saw it with Jürgen Klopp last season, we're seeing it with Jose Mourinho up at Old Trafford, and even to a certain extent at Pep Guardiola's Manchester City, who have won every game, but by being brilliant for a half here, half an hour there. They're looking ominous, but not yet complete, and they still can't really defend. Brendan Rodgers gets mocked -- quite rightly -- for his ludicrous flights of linguistic self-basting, but he once said that managing a football team was like rebuilding an airplane while it's in flight, and he wasn't far off, particularly when it comes to bigger teams. The whole thing has to keep moving, keep winning, even while you switch the parts around. Chelsea have been better this season than last, but so far that has consisted not of anything radically different or revolutionary, but of running a bit faster, working a bit harder, having a few more shots and -- at least until Swansea's moment of trombone-soundtracked refereeing -- being a little bit luckier.
Which, again, is fine. Is to be expected, even. For all that the in-your-face hype of the Premier League demands in-the-moment conclusions to match, we're not going to have any idea whether these managers at these clubs are working until at least the other side of Christmas. The only real thing to note is that Conte, along with Friday night's opposite number Klopp, has one advantage over the other teams in the still-theoretical title race: Chelsea were so bad last season that they have no European football this.
So while United have been schlepping out to the Netherlands to get beaten by Feyenoord, while Arsenal have been scrambling for a point in Paris, and while City have been watching the rain fall and rescheduling their plans, Chelsea have been training and recovering and preparing and, in theory, getting better. Or at the very least, getting more Conte. They'll have at least six free midweeks over most of their rivals -- cup replays notwithstanding -- and as such, we might perhaps get to see the shape of the Conte revolution, and his answer to the easiest and most difficult job in the league, just a little ahead of the normal schedule.
Ultimately, if we need evidence that a bit of extra time training time can make a serious difference, we need only look to Chelsea's opponents tonight: last time Liverpool went a season out of Europe, they came within one slip of winning the league. And if tonight's game comes a little early to be drawing any firm conclusions about whether either side are title competitors this season, then the neutral can at least draw their own consolations from the midweek downtimes. Two incredibly hardworking sides with dubious defenses, charging at one another on the back of a week's rest. What Friday nights were made for.