Antonio Conte can't escape blame for Chelsea's uneven title defence
The 2016-17 season is barely two months old, but for Chelsea it has already been a roller coaster.
The opening-day home defeat to Burnley, the defensive win at Tottenham, the drab draw with Arsenal, the imposing victory at Atletico Madrid, the comprehensive loss to table-topping Manchester City, the reverse to previously pointless and goalless Crystal Palace. The seemingly erratic nature of these results and performances has seen expectations either soar or dip at almost every juncture.
Factor in the hamstring injuries suffered by Alvaro Morata, N'Golo Kante and now Victor Moses and it is hard to know what to expect when Chelsea next take the field. While it might make going to Stamford Bridge or tuning in on television that bit more unpredictable, it is not doing much for Chelsea's ambitions of winning major silverware.
Three weeks ago, confidence among supporters was high. The team was on an eight-match unbeaten run and had just come away with victory from what is arguably Chelsea's toughest fixture of the Champions League group stage. The win at the Wanda Metropolitano was not only about the three points but the dominant manner in which they were attained against one of the recent powerhouses of European football.
Since then, all the euphoria and optimism that had been swirling around the club has largely dissipated. Given the way Antonio Conte turned around a difficult start last season, there is little gloom among the fans though perhaps a dose of realism has had to be swallowed by everyone concerned.
The manager's summer assertions that the squad was not strong enough to compete on several fronts risks being proven correct given the meek nature of the defeats to City and Palace. Against City, there was seemingly no viable alternative to Morata as soon as the Spaniard suffered his game-ending injury. Willian's introduction ahead of a target man neutralised any effective counterattacking ambitions. At Selhurst Park, the physical gap and diminished energy left by Kante's absence was clear for all to see.
There is, however, another option to just playing the technically brilliant but defensively deficient Cesc Fabregas in a two-man midfield, a situation that almost always proves costly. That option is to push David Luiz into midfield and play Andreas Christensen in central defence. It is not the perfect solution but with Kante likely to be out for several weeks and Danny Drinkwater still inching his way to full fitness, it is one worth implementing.
Another factor in those defeats appeared to be fatigue. Having spent every ounce of energy to win in Madrid, Chelsea had a day's less rest and the added burden of travelling back from Spain ahead of their clash with City. Many members of the side also looked jaded against Palace following their international exertions. Willian looked particularly short of zest after his return trip from Brazil and it was his hesitancy that led to Wilfried Zaha's winner on the stroke of half-time.
Willian's condition must have been noted by the coaching staff so his inclusion was surprising. On the surface it might seem that Chelsea didn't have comparable replacements and that a lack of squad depth was to blame. But Pedro Rodriguez and Charly Musonda -- both with similar skill sets to Willian -- were on the bench and indeed were introduced as second-half substitutes.
While none of his players covered themselves in glory on Saturday and were understandably criticised in many quarters, the manager must also take his share of the blame. The team selection and setup clearly didn't work and while he cannot have expected his players to perform so poorly, Conte was also culpable for this defeat.
After what he has achieved for Chelsea in such a short amount of time and the passion that he has shown for the club, it isn't easy to level any criticism towards the Italian. There is certainly nothing but love for the manager from the supporters and there will be no knee-jerk reactions from them after these consecutive defeats. But the fact is that Conte has been as imperfect as his team this season -- some tactical brilliance one minute, some curious team selection or substitution the next.
The previous time that Chelsea lost back-to-back league games was at a similar stage last season. On that occasion they responded by winning the next 13 Premier League matches and created an unassailable platform from which to win the title. There is nothing to suggest that Conte will not once again find the answer to his problems even if replicating that streak is a little unlikely.
Chelsea's next and therefore most important obstacle is their Champions League match with Roma on Wednesday night. A win and the extension of their 100 percent record in Europe this season will be hugely welcome after a challenging couple of weeks. And it might just remind the team why they are in the competition in the first place and that they can still end this roller-coaster season on a high.
Phil is one of ESPN's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @PhilLythell.