Chelsea’s form in 2018 does not make for good reading.
The general consensus seems to be centered on Conte’s gloomy demeanour and reluctance to switch things up from his preferred tactic of three at the back, and the manager is arguably fortunate to still be in a job after speculation that he'd be dismissed following the defeat by Watford.
While the former criticism may be merited, a departure from a back-three may be required if Conte is to survive at Stamford Bridge.
To this end, Victor Moses could be key to the Italian manager saving his job.
Admittedly, and in hindsight, the Italian manager has made a few poor calls in recent games, not least in terms of personnel and combinations.
Chelsea’s rather indifferent start to the 2016-17 season saw the Italian bring in Moses and Marcos Alonso as his primary wing-backs. The switch saw the Stamford Bridge club win a staggering 27 games from 32 (after winning just three from the first six) in a remarkable title-winning campaign.
Moses, for his part, seemed reborn in the wing-back role as it amplified most of his strengths, while masking a few weaknesses in his game.
By contrast though, this season has seen an alarming drop in his level of performances and, consequently, Chelsea’s. Some may scoff and downright say it’s a bit silly attributing the Pensioners’ malaise this year to the inconsistency of their wing-backs.
Admittedly, that may be rather too simplistic, but you can’t deny their output (or lack of, in this case) has a major impact on how Chelsea play.
The three-man defence requires the men out wide to maintain the side’s width (as the team mostly play without recognized wingers), whilst influencing the game at both ends of the pitch.
Moses, and to a lesser degree, Alonso have struggled to replicate last season’s performances and it’s ultimately crippled the team’s effectiveness. The Nigeria international's statistics show a considerable drop in his underlying figures from last year which amplifies his lesser contribution in defence and attack.
A particular indictment in this campaign has been his inability to beat his marker with any degree of consistency and consequently create chances for his teammates in the attacking third. He’s also down on his number of key passes, chances created, interceptions, blocks and clearances from 2016/2017.
Maybe the Nigerian is starting to feel the effects of playing in one of the most physically challenging positions in modern football, hence the drop in quality displays. This certainly appears to be the case with Alonso, who's a doubt for the West Bromwich Albion match due to fatigue.
When you take into account the number of extra games this season, coupled with the wideman’s problems in the past to stay fit for a stretch whilst also delivering good performances, it all adds up.
The Super Eagle missed about seven weeks earlier in the campaign as Chelsea struggled through the autumn to find a balance to their play. He returned to the starting line-up in early December and delivered a good performance in his side’s 3-1 win over Newcastle United at the Bridge.
The fact that the West African superstar’s next good outing was in the Blues’ 4-0 win over Brighton on January 20 (when he set up Eden Hazard’s opener before scoring himself) is telling. Both matches were seven weeks and eight league games apart. It's not good enough...and not nearly consistent enough!
Conte hasn’t helped either, with his flirtation with the 3-5-2 system (a tweak from Chelsea’s title winning 3-4-3 formation) in several games this term, which only places extra pressure on inconsistent wing-backs to deliver. The Blues have also lacked the element of control of games they had last season, which then mostly sees the widemen pinned back in a back five and unable to attack and support the front-men.
A switch to a back four wouldn’t make much of a difference either, with the dreadlocked Nigerian neither a natural full-back nor the most prolific attacker.
In the space of three days, Chelsea played Newcastle and Bournemouth, which saw performances from either side of the great divide.
In the Blues’ 3-0 FA Cup fourth round win over a poor Magpies side, Alonso and Davide Zappacosta were deployed out wide and had impressive individual performances. On the other hand, both players failed to replicate that display against Eddie Howe’s side as they slumped to an extremely disappointing 3-0 defeat in West London.
A penny for Antonio Conte’s thoughts - before the showdown with The Albion this weekend – as he strives to get better and importantly, more consistent performances from his wing-backs.
With the departure of Abdul Baba Rahman and Kenedy (both on loan) to Schalke 04 and Newcastle respectively, and subsequent arrival of Emerson Palmieri from Roma – a superior athlete to Alonso – the Italian manager has got to be pulling his hair out on how to get dependable performances from his widemen.
If he’s successful, then maybe, just maybe a so far disappointing campaign might still have a happy ending.