Chelsea’s FA Cup defeat to Arsenal showed that building on their Premier League title triumph will not be straight-forward, writes Nick Wright.
In the days leading up to the FA Cup final, Antonio Conte talked about extending his contract in order to “build something important” at Chelsea. It was music to their supporters’ ears after a stellar debut season in the Premier League, but Saturday’s FA Cup final defeat to Arsenal was a reminder of the hard work that lies ahead.
With their uncharacteristically off-colour performance at Wembley, Chelsea missed the chance to win a league and FA Cup double. After a season in which they were far superior to their Premier League rivals from November onwards, Conte’s side fell well short of expectations in their final test.
They cannot be blamed for feeling drained. Chelsea’s relentless march to the title was a feat of endurance in itself, and the difficulty of keeping a title-winning side focused for an FA Cup final is clear from the fact that only 11 sides have won both trophies in the same season in English football history.
Conte is a hard task-master who demands total commitment from his players in training, but the hangover from their title celebrations was plain to see as they were comprehensively outplayed by Arsenal in the first half at Wembley. Conte pointed to Alexis Sanchez’s controversial opening goal as a turning point, but the pattern of the half already looked set before that.
And so, as Chelsea come to terms with the disappointment of finishing a brilliant campaign on a low point, thoughts will turn to the challenges ahead. Conte were irresistible for so much of 2016/17, but no side has retained the Premier League title since Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United in 2009.
They don’t need to look far for reminders of what can go wrong. Chelsea’s 10th-placed finish in 2015/16 came when Jose Mourinho appeared more likely to build a dynasty at Stamford Bridge. This season, Leicester dropped like a stone after the highs of their own triumph last summer.
Chelsea will also be wary of how their rivals will strengthen. Indeed, Manchester City have already started their transfer business with the £43m purchase of Bernardo Silva from Monaco, while Jose Mourinho is likely to receive the same kind of financial backing at United. Atletico Madrid’s Antoine Griezmann is known to be among their targets.
It was no surprise, then, to hear Conte asking for Roman Abramovich to match that ambition after Saturday’s game. “The most important thing is to give a correct evaluation of our season,” he said. “For next season, we must pay great attention and understand that we have to improve the numbers and the quality in the squad.”
Chelsea will have to contend with the extra commitments of European football next season, so bringing in the right reinforcements will be vital if Conte is to rotate his side effectively. Chelsea are particularly short on cover at centre-back and wing-back, and there are also question marks over the future of top scorer Diego Costa.
Chelsea can, however, draw encouragement from Conte’s record. The Italian mastered the art of re-focusing his players at Juventus, winning three consecutive Serie A titles between 2011 and 2014. The competition is stronger in the Premier League, but if anyone can keep Chelsea on top, it’s surely Conte.
In that sense, Chelsea supporters will hope their unusually careless display at Wembley proves to be an anomaly. They can have some confidence, too. The last time they struggled this badly was in the 3-0 defeat to the same opposition back in September. Now it’s up to Conte to muster the same kind of response.