Much of the media attention in the wake of Arsenal’s shock 3-0 victory over Chelsea on Saturday has focused on quite how un-Arsenal the result actually was. That’s not at all surprising: Arsène Wenger's reputation as a hopeless idealist (emphasis, often unfairly, on hopeless) certainly has some basis in fact, and has regularly been reaffirmed in matches against a Chelsea side leaning much more towards the pragmatic than romantic.
But while the Gunners certainly deserve credit for the win, they should be less enthused than Chelsea should be concerned. This was a result that was admittedly rather un-Arsenal, but it was even more un-Chelsea. And more specifically still, it was profoundly un-Conte.
When Chelsea hired the Italian coach in the summer, it seemed a solid hire; one very much in the Roman Abramovich tradition. For, though the press have made much through the years of Abramovich’s obsession with replicating the strategic dominance of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, his actual appointments belie such a naive hope. From José Mourinho through Guus Hiddink, Carlo Ancelotti and Rafael Benítez, Chelsea’s owner has a track record of appointing coaches who pride themselves on efficiency more than artistry. One only needs to cast their mind back to Italy’s gruesomely effective overperformance at Euro 2016 in the summer to know that new boss Antonio Conte, on paper, fits the mould perfectly.
Though it hasn’t always been plain sailing for Chelsea, few can deny that the Abramovich era has been a very successful one. Unlike Arsenal and Wenger, the club who pride themselves on doing things the right way, Chelsea appear to be interested in little more than doing things the winning way. Sport is supposed to offer an escape from the hard, miserable facts of everyday life, but even the footballing arena is one in which the idealist comes up against the grim truth: the bad guy often wins. A Champions League, four Premier Leagues, as many FA Cups, three League Cups, two Community Shields, and a humble Europa League, to be precise.
And yet, in spite of all of this, there can be no doubting that over the last year, things just haven’t gone right for the Blues. And their hammering at the hands of an Arsenal side they’ve often thrashed with menacing delight is the latest sign that Conte has some serious work to do. Though there are plenty of things for which the Italian can be criticised, his tactical abilities are almost beyond reproach. There are few better organisers of a defence at the top of football today; not since 2009, when he was coach of Atalanta, had Conte lost a league game by a three-goal margin. The question, therefore, is what is going on?
The prospect that Chelsea’s problems run deeper than the man on the bench is one supporters may not have dared consider. But the longer Conte’s difficulties continue, the closer Mourinho’s reputation — which took a serious kicking when he was sacked midway through the last season — comes to rehabilitation. In reality, we’ll have to wait a little longer to really judge the source of Chelsea’s problems. Is it Conte’s strange decision to play Nemanja Matić higher up the pitch than N'Golo Kanté? Is it that Cesc Fàbregas still isn't very good? Is it that bringing David Luiz back from Paris Saint-Germain was an even weirder move than first anticipated? Is it that Eden Hazard and Diego Costa just don’t seem to care?
It goes without saying that it’s not likely to be any one of those issues in isolation, and probably a combination of a few — if not more. The result is that these are testing times for Chelsea. Abramovich must have often thought he’d found the secret to footballing success, but the last few months have offered a stark reminder that no such formula exists. Hiring Conte seemed an extraordinarily safe bet for the Blues, but his stuttering start reminds us that even the the most cold and calculated decisions don’t always pay off.