It was only a friendly. That’s a fact that means Pedro will be available for Saturday’s league game against Burnley despite his red card – and it’s also a useful excuse for a largely indifferent display from the Premier League champions.
Arsenal may have needed a penalty shootout to win the Community Shield but Chelsea never seemed quite in the game. Quite how troubling that should be depends largely on what stage they are supposed to be at in their preparations, but there are definite causes for concern.
Chelsea’s strength last season was the 3‑4‑2‑1 formation that provided a platform on which their two main creators could perform with just enough assistance from the wing‑backs and a deeper-lying midfielder pushing forward.
Eden Hazard, all jinking spurts and intelligent link-ups with Marcos Alonso outside him, was the clear stand-out in that regard. With no European football to sap the energy, the Belgian was able to play 36 Premier League games, so the issue of what sort of threat Chelsea might pose in his absence was never really raised.
Back in the Champions League, rotation and the issue of creativity would have been more of an issue this season anyway, but it has been brought to immediate attention by the ankle injury that will keep Hazard out for at least a couple more months.
With Diego Costa ostracised pending a probable move to Atlético Madrid and Nemanja Matic sold to Manchester United, that meant Chelsea starting without three of their five leading assist-providers from last season – with one of those who was on the pitch, Pedro, wearing a mask to protect a damaged cheek. Arsenal, mirroring their opponents’ shape as so many sides did last season, were troubled only rarely and will probably feel they should have won in normal time.
A certain disquiet about a lack of new signings has been apparent at Stamford Bridge through the summer and, while there’s always the danger of judging Chelsea managers through the prism of their most notable predecessor, there seemed something pointed in Conte’s comment in his programme notes. “We are looking hard to improve the number, and quality, of players,” he wrote.
Not a single new signing started for Chelsea, with Tiemoué Bakayoko injured and Antonio Rüdiger and Álvaro Morata left on the bench. Morata eventually made his entrance with 17 minutes remaining but had a debut to forget as he blasted one chance way over and then struck the outside of a post in the shootout.
For Chelsea fans of a pessimistic disposition there was a further echo of José Mourinho’s calamitous final season in Conte’s decision to eschew his usual suit and opt for a blue tracksuit, the tails of a white T-shirt hanging out from beneath the top.
Two years ago, when an unshaven Mourinho donned a sloppy T-shirt and tracksuit bottoms, it was seen as a conscious gesture, a managerial shrugging of the shoulders, a way of saying that he was denying responsibility for what turned out to be his first ever defeat to Arsène Wenger.
The sartorial semiotics of Conte are nothing like as well-developed as the equivalent field for Mourinho, but the suggestion here was that this was not a game to be taken too seriously.
That’s probably just as well, given the sluggishness and sloppiness of much of their play.
They may not have been quite as open as they were in the first half of the Cup final in May but neither was this anything like the side that swaggered through the late autumn and winter to make the final weeks of the season a coronation parade. Pedro’s red card for a clumsy foul on Mohamed Elneny will be highlighted as the turning point but the truth is that aside from 10 minutes at the beginning of the second half, Chelsea never convinced.
The first and pretty much only sign of the creative pair clicking came after 35 minutes as Pedro ran on to a long diagonal from Willian only to smack his shot straight at Petr Cech. That aside, Willian’s main contribution before half-time was to be booked for diving – possibly a little harshly. Seizing on a moment of sloppiness from Héctor Bellerín, he brushed the full-back as he went past, which seemed to lead him to tread on his own heel: not a penalty, but equally not necessarily simulation. He is a player at his best with space in front of him but Arsenal, with their two holders in front of a back three, successfully denied him that.
There was a general lethargy and disjointedness to much of Chelsea’s play – as perhaps is only natural at this stage. Even when they took the lead it was more to do with Arsenal dozing after a corner had been half-cleared than any great invention of their own, for all that Victor Moses deserves credit for the determined way in which he surged on to Gary Cahill’s header.
When Chelsea lost to Arsenal in the Community Shield two years ago it was the first indicator of the malaise that would, four months later, lead to Mourinho’s dismissal. Nobody expects anything remotely similar here but that lack of creativity in Hazard’s absence is an issue that needs addressing.
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