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Lack of Backbone threatens to overshadow any progress by Chelsea this season

Everton 2-0 Chelsea

Gone in two weeks. That was the optimism, bounce and feel-good factor at Chelsea. After a period that saw a 4-0 defeat at Bournemouth, a 6-0 humiliation at Manchester City, an FA Cup exit at the hands of Manchester United on their own patch, topped with the Kepa nonsense at Wembley in the League Cup final, Chelsea responded with a win over Spurs and at Fulham, alongside Europa League progress. The players looked united, the fans looked onside, substitutions weren’t jeered, and chants of ‘you don’t know what you’re doing’ had subsided.

But they’ve slumped again, a bit like a relapse, like an alcoholic who makes headway in terms of getting sober, stumbles upon one bottle and goes full drunken master once more. Europa League progress continues – they are set for a quarter-final date with Sparta Prague, having seen off Dynamo Kiev 8-0 on aggregate – but league games in that time have been a draw against Wolves and a defeat at Everton, one point from a possible six.

That run of form has seen them switch from being in pole position for third place to be very much lodged in sixth, they are still very much in the race for the top four, but they’re playing catch-up with eight games to go. And Chelsea haven’t been good at playing catch-up this season, by any stretch. In the nine games in which Chelsea have conceded first since November, since a loss at Spurs, Chelsea have lost all but one of those game – the exception being that draw at home to Wolves – and have scored twice in that time.

That shows a kind of softness, mentally and psychologically, with Maurizio Sarri’s side. Chelsea were on top for most of the first half at Goodison Park on Sunday, only Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford and the base of the post prevented them from seemingly going out of sight, but after conceding early in the second half, they fell apart, became hapless and listless, and hardly looked like finding an equaliser, then conceded a second.

That’s being the problem for the Blues under Sarri, hardly any mettle about them, not quite the hardened or street-smart side of the past. When they concede, they hardly ever look like getting back into it, all heads drop, and invention and stomach is lacking. Despite the fact that Sarri’s system and philosophy needs time to bear fruit, this is a problem for Chelsea; no backbone to seemingly rise above adversity, no street smarts to win when things look to be a going south.

Bournemouth 4-0 Chelsea
Chelsea lost heavily at Bournemouth in January. They can’t seem to find a way after conceding first in games

And this seemingly lack of fight brings into the fore the question of how much progress Chelsea have made under the former Napoli boss. The Blues have 57 points this season, just one ahead of this same stage last season, and are a place below what they are at this point in Antonio Conte’s final season. Of course, it’s not that simple; Sarri arrived just two weeks before the Community Shield, and his task has been to shape the squad to his philosophy during the season, which is no easy task.

But that shouldn’t excuse a lack of fight and mettle from the side. There are eight games left in the league this season, and potentially five in the Europa League. If Chelsea don’t find some resolve soon, any kind of growth made so far is in danger of mattering very little, and a season meant to be a work in progress could turn out to be a full-blown failure.

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