One defeat does not constitute a crisis at Chelsea these days, not even an emphatic 3-0 beating by Sunderland at Stamford Bridge. However the manner of the defeat, the way the Double winners were so comprehensively outplayed, hints at deep-seated problems within the club that cannot be fixed with double sessions on the training ground.
The seeds for Sunday's embarrassment were sown last summer, in the wake of the most successful season in the club's 105-year history in which they became champions of the Premier League and winners of the FA Cup.
In the weeks that followed the team's open-bus parade around the streets of SW6, the club's oligarch owner Roman Abramovich and his board made the decision to trim around £20m from the wage bill, by releasing some of their most experienced players.
Joe Cole, Michael Ballack and Juliano Belletti were told their lucrative contracts would not be renewed, while Ricardo Carvalho and Deco were also shown the door. How the manager Carlo Ancelotti could have done with some of those players on Sunday, when injury had robbed him of John Terry and Frank Lampard, and Michael Essien had got himself a silly three-game ban for a crazy foul in stoppage time of Wednesday's victory over Fulham.
Arsenal's midfielder Samir Nasri could barely hide his delight yesterday as he mulled over Chelsea's thrashing by Sunderland, with his own club just two points behind.
"I was very surprised. 3-0 at home against Sunderland? No. I'd thought perhaps at the most a draw, or a 1-0 defeat, but 3-0? No, no, no. Not at all," he said. "But the absence of John Terry, Alex, Essien as well, that made a big difference. Chelsea have lost Ballack, have lost Deco in the midfield, Ricardo Carvalho also and they haven't really replaced him. So much the better. Their first-choice XI is good but the group I think has lost a bit in terms of quantity and quality compared to last season."
For Chelsea, the situation is "worrying". Florent Malouda, whose substitution on Sunday was met with incredulity and derision by Chelsea fans, admitted: "It was the decision of the coach. The most important thing is the fact that we lost. Happily we are still at the top of the table but it is true that to lose in that manner is a bit worrying."
The complacent thinking that guided Chelsea's decision to dispense with five senior players, and replace them only with a pair of lightweights in Ramires and Yossi Benayoun, was in evidence once again last week with the sacking of Ancelotti's assistant Ray Wilkins. Whatever Abramovich's misgivings with Wilkins' coaching ability, the timing of the decision was unnecessary and has clearly not been received well in the dressing room. It did not cause Sunday's defeat, but to lose someone who was so close to the players did not help matters.
Terry did not play on Sunday having aggravated a back injury but that did not stop him speaking out against the decision to sack Wilkins. In his programme notes, the captain wrote: "It was an unexpected decision but we have to move on and stay calm. Ray was a great person to have around the football club. He would pick you up when you were down and, if there was a problem for any players or staff, he would be the first one to call them to make sure everything was OK and to ask if there was any way he could help.
"And all that came alongside his knowledge and coaching ability on the football field."
Abramovich clearly thinks he can do without Wilkins, much as he thought he could do without the likes of Cole, Carvalho and Ballack last summer. In recent years, the strength of the squad was clear from one look at the bench, where such as Cole, Belletti, Shaun Wright-Phillips and Wayne Bridge used to warm their well-paid backsides. On Sunday it included Josh McEachran (aged 17), Gael Kakuta (19), Jacopo Sala (18), Jeffrey Bruma (19) and Patrick van Aanholt (20).
It is true Chelsea are carrying some casualties – Frank Lampard, Benayoun, Terry and Alex were sidelined on Sunday – but they are not alone in having to cope with injuries to important figures. However, few other squads look quite so stretched by the loss of a couple of players.
The goalkeeper Petr Cech yesterday admitted Chelsea were "all over the place" against Sunderland. He said: "We weren't compact enough. We were all over the place. We changed the back four but it is everyone's mistake."
Ancelotti can work on his team's defending. However there is little he can do about the muddled thinking of Abramovich and his advisers, who on Sunday witnessed the consequences of what they did last summer.
Chelsea have struggled after they have fallen behind of late, while Manchester United seemingly never accept defeat.
* Chelsea's record after conceding first in last five league games
14 Nov Sunderland (h) Lost 3-0
7 Nov Liverpool (a) Lost 2-0
30 Oct Blackburn (a) Won 2-1
25 Sept Man City (a) Lost 1-0
17 April Tottenham (a) Lost 2-1
* United's record after conceding first
13 Nov Aston Villa (a) Drew 2-2
26 Sept Bolton (a) Drew 2-2
11 Sept verton (a) Drew 3-3
3 April Chelsea (h)Lost 2-1
21 March Liverpool (h) Won 2-1
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