Chelsea finally have their first major setback. How they respond will define their Premier League challenge

The sides at the top of the Premier League table were – and are – separated by so few points that anyone who drops points will slide down the table. And that’s exactly what happened to Chelsea this weekend.

Their 3–2 defeat to West Ham United in the opening match of the weekend saw them lose their lead. Instead, at the end of the weekend, they are now in third place, two points behind new leaders Manchester City.

This is not the result of Thomas Tuchel and co. would have liked. The Premier League’s December schedule is notoriously full; The more a side can avoid dropping points, the better.

However, Chelsea were outclassed by a West Ham side who were clearly ready for the game. And as a result, they will go into the remainder of December on the backfoot.

Of course, the truth is that all teams will lose at some point. What matters in the long run is how the Blues respond to this setback.

There’s also the fact that it took weeks to build up to such a result.

Chelsea are not shocked

With the exception of a 4-0 win over Juventus and a 3-0 win over Leicester in the Champions League, Chelsea’s recent form has not been so impressive.

The points were dropped against Burnley when they conceded late on to end the game with a 1–1 scoreline. Against Manchester United, a poor error from Jorginho saw them chasing the game for most of the second half.

Even against Watford, they looked miserable at times and needed a Hakim Ziyech winner to secure the three points. Before that, it seemed as though Watford had done enough to be at least a point away.

What makes things worse is that individual errors are creeping back into the defensive side of things. One of Tuchel’s biggest achievements during his time at the club has been making them a mediocre defensive unit.

The three-man defense manned by goalkeeper Edouard Mendy has been difficult to overcome. Often times it has helped squeeze out a win where Chelsea’s erratic finishing would have hurt them.

However, this has not happened often lately. Against Burnley, United and West Ham, the defense prevailed in crucial moments and the attack again looked vulnerable.

There are issues to be resolved, especially in attack. The defense looked so strong that a small blip in form is understandable. But the lack of attacking solidarity is worrying.

It doesn’t help that Romelu Lukaku, brought in as a source of goals, is struggling to find the back of the net. The Belgians started well at Stamford Bridge but were hampered by injuries and lack of pace.

Somebody is feeling that if he fires again, the issue will be covered. But the other forwards – Timo Werner in particular – also need to step up.

side work in progress

It is also clear that the side, despite significant investment, is a work in progress. It is not just for the personnel but also for the experience.

Many of these Chelsea squads were not around when Chelsea last won the league. In fact, in Chelsea’s last league-winning campaign, Cesar Azpilicueta, N’Golo Kante and Marcos Alonso are the only remaining stalwarts.

Azpilicueta and Alonso are not the first choice today. Kante is one of the best midfielders in the world in his day. But his fitness problems limit his playing time – and ability to make an impact on a consistent basis.

So, as far as things stand, there is still a learning curve as far as winning the league is concerned. Winning a cup competition – even one as big as the Champions League – can be easier because of the smaller number of fixtures.

Eventually, the team that reaches the final of the European tournament will also play a maximum of 13 games. There are three times the number of games in the domestic league.

This may sound like a reach, but technical know-how counts for a lot in such situations. For example, Manchester City and Liverpool have that technical know-how, which has made them compete for the league so many times over the years.

City have won three of the last four league titles; Liverpool won one, but lost the other (2018–19) by a single point. In short, these teams are aware of the slog required to win the league.

In contrast, most of Chelsea’s current players are talented but lack big-time experience. However, the good thing is that he has a coach who is one of the best in the business.

The future is not bleak… yet

Chelsea’s more cynical fans have already written off their domestic title chances. However, given that there are only 15 games in the season, this would be a premature reaction.

Even now, Chelsea are only two points off the top and neither City nor Liverpool will go through December without dropping points.

The competitive nature at the top of the table has been such that these positions, as they stand, are only representative of their current form. There are just too many variables that will pop up; And troubles can and will always happen.

This type of loss is not something to lose hope about; West Ham have beaten both City and Liverpool so far this season, and are a threat to either side when on form.

But Chelsea can’t afford to lose any more ground. Now the focus should be on removing the chink in their armor and – if necessary – grinding out some results.

Should this not happen, then only the two-horse race should be announced independently.

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