For a few seconds after Sam Vokes had risen to meet Steven Defour’s cross to give Burnley an improbable 3-0 lead over the Premier League champions at Stamford Bridge, Antonio Conte stood staring into thin air with his hand resting impassively on his chin. The Chelsea manager has witnessed a lot during a decade in the dugout but watching his misfiring team succumb so meekly to a side who had recorded just one away victory last season surely must have been a new experience.
After a strange summer that has seen his employers spend the best part of £130m on new players yet go into the title defence looking considerably weaker than the outfit who swept all before them just a few months ago, the Italian then found himself fielding questions that suggested he had deliberately sabotaged his starting lineup in a bid to send a message to the club’s owner. Conte bristled visibly at that accusation, staring down his inquisitor before insisting “you don’t know me very well”, although quite what Roman Abramovich would have made of it all is anyone’s guess.
“No I’m not worried, because it’s normal,” Conte said later. “It’s important for me not to close my eyes, but to focus on our mistakes and to try to work to improve.”
Almost two years to the day before, José Mourinho had stood in the same dugout and watched his reigning champions begin their title defence by having a player sent off and subsequently failing to see off a visiting team expected to struggle. Save for Mourinho’s outburst at team doctor Eva Carneiro that proved to be the beginning of the end of the Special One’s second coming, that 2-2 draw with Swansea had many parallels to Saturday’s shock defeat, with Gary Cahill this time playing the part of Thibaut Courtois in being dismissed early on another sunny afternoon in west London.
But while Mourinho’s ire had only increased after the final whistle on that occasion, a second-half comeback that almost rescued a point seemed to help his successor find his focus once more, even if the manner in which Chelsea had imploded after the England defender was sent off in the 14th minute for his studs-up challenge on Defour will be of great concern for Conte.
He did reveal some frustration by suggesting they would need to work on a new formation “with nine players” after Cesc Fàbregas was also dismissed late on. The latter’s suspension for the trip to Wembley to face last season’s runners-up, Tottenham, on Sunday, coupled with the continued absence of injured £40m signing Tiémoué Bakayoko, leaves a gaping hole in midfield that even a master tactician such as the former Juventus and Italy manager will find difficult to fill.
Having loaned out 26 players so far and having sold Nemanja Matic and Nathaniel Chalobah, there is no real excuse and even with Chelsea expected to make a renewed attempt to sign Leicester’s Danny Drinkwater and their interest in Barcelona’s Sergi Roberto, Conte put the ball firmly in his employers’ court before a match that, even at this early stage, could help to define their season.
“The club is trying to do their best in the transfer market,” he said. “I am a coach and now the season has started so my focus is just on the pitch and working with my players. This is my squad and this is my team and I want to fight with these players. The club is doing the work.”
On Spurs, Conte said: “We have one week to try to find the right solution. For sure, this game will be really tough but we must be ready. We must be ready. We must have the same will, the same desire to fight as the second half. I think we have to restart from there.”
By contrast, his counterpart Sean Dyche rightly revelled in his side’s achievement – which continues their remarkable record of having defeated the champions in each of their four seasons in the Premier League. The sales of Michael Keane and Andre Gray for a combined £43m would have knocked the stuffing out of most teams in the lower reaches of the division but it is a credit to their manager that they were deserved winners against Chelsea.
Reinforcements in the form of the French defender Nicolas Isimat-Mirin from PSV Eindhoven and Chris Wood of Leeds could be on their way, although Dyche – who was a candidate to replace Sam Allardyce at Crystal Palace before they opted for Frank de Boer – would happily settle for what he already has.
“We’ve had it happen many times since I’ve been at the club. Almost every year, every other year, arguably some of the best players go out of the building,” he said. “It’s not ideal, of course. Nobody wants to lose their best players. It’s a reality of this club and some of the challenges it faces. It’s not something I want to happen, but it happens. But it’s more about focusing on what you’re then going to do next. I’m not really one for crying at anything. I tend not to cry too much.”