Image from Metro UK
Chelsea are going into the new season as Premier League champions having also reached the FA Cup final and lost out on the Community Shield on penalties. They lifted the title with a record 30 wins in 38 games and revolutionised the art of playing 3 at the back under Italian manager Antonio Conte. During the summer they recruited the likes of Antonio Rudiger, Tiemoue Bakayoko and Alvaro Morata to replace the more ageing John Terry, Nemanja Matic and the soon-to-be-sold Diego Costa. So, what is wrong at Chelsea and why do pundits keep saying “something isn’t right”?
Let’s look at their summer transfer business. As mentioned, 3 in and 3 out should maintain a fairly stable ship, but Conte doesn’t seem happy about something. Assessing the players pound-for-pound, you’d have to say Chelsea have done well in the market so far. Rudiger has bags of pace, experience at club and international level, and has played all his life for big clubs, Roma being the last. Bakayoko dominated the midfield as his Monaco teammates supported each other towards a Ligue 1 title and a Champions League semi-final. Morata arrives boasting 20 goals from the bench for Real Madrid, with a Champions League medal around his neck too. There should be no real reason to be concerned – however it’s worth discussing Conte’s influence on the transfer market and what else he may be looking for.
It’s no secret that Chelsea run their club with a board heavily involved in transfer proceedings, and often the manager takes more of a role of the ‘head coach’. This is the second summer in a row that Conte and Chelsea have had some frustrations in the market, with a lot of their business coming late in the window of 2016 and the 2017 window bringing other issues with Man Utd signing Lukaku from under their noses, and then bringing Matic to the north as well, a transfer many believe Conte didn’t sanction.
The main worries for the club and Conte may not just be in the lack of hitting number 1 transfer targets, but also the sales of players who would have added real squad depth in a year where Chelsea are going to be faced with intense fixture congestion. The sales of Nathan Ake, Nathan Chalobah and Dominic Solanke suggest that Chelsea are, as always, unprepared to give youngsters the chance to emerge and break into the first team no matter how well they perform on loan. Adding to that, Chelsea’s main 3 in 3 out business this summer only suggests replacement rather than improvement. It is evident to many that whilst Alonso and Moses did a great job last season, they are perhaps a level below what Chelsea need to succeed two years in a row and that they thrived off good form more than their true abilities. This has led to the well-documented chase of Alex Sandro and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, both of which have failed to materialise so far, and we’re days away from the opening fixture.
Alvaro Morata had a tough day at Wembley, but I don’t believe there’s reason to worry yet. In fact, any pressure on his shoulders is simply caused by Diego Costa’s Chelsea record, not the Spaniard’s lack of class. Diego performed so well at the club over his three years that even when he wasn’t scoring goals he was a constant threat and contributed to play in all areas which kept Chelsea’s attacking line ticking. Morata doesn’t have any stand-out qualities – in essence he is just good at everything. Costa always stood out as a ruthless finisher and an aggressor to oppositions, always making him the target for defenders and allowing Pedro and Hazard more freedom. Whereas Lacazette and Lukaku simply have to be upgrades on roles that are yet to be fulfilled at their clubs, Morata has to fill the Costa shape hole left in West London, or fans will wonder why the ex-Atletico forward was allowed to feel so uncomfortable and told to find a new club.
We mentioned the lack of depth at Chelsea. Depth doesn’t mean having a good 7 players on the bench, but it means being able to call upon strong options to fulfil the roles of injured, tired or suspend regulars. Let’s look at Chelsea’s depth…
It’s fair to assume the above would be the starting XI – let’s look at the second XI.
Now this second line up has some quality, but with it some very unproven youngsters. I’m not even sure Musonda plays at wing-back, I just wasn’t sure who else to pick! Let’s compared this to Arsenal’s two XI’s, who went into the Community Shield with various injuries.
(Line-up in the Community Shield)
Those sides are still missing; Gibbs, Wilshere and Walcott. Now, Arsenal finished 5th, so perhaps their model isn’t the one to follow. But the depth is there and it’s allowed the club to compete on so many fronts year in year out. Where they’ve been let down is the quality in the first XI, which is what Chelsea had last year. They still have that magnificent XI, but if they can add depth and build a stronger second XI, Conte will be a much happier man going into the new season.
Adding to the troubles are Conte’s continued links to clubs abroad, mainly Inter Milan. Inter are now under new owners who vow to back Conte with funding and complete control of the club. This is a project Conte would relish, but out of loyalty and the belief that he has more to achieve in London, has decided to sign a a contract promotion (but not extension, strangely enough…). If clubs are going to sound out Conte over potential moves, it makes it much harder for him to accept problems at Chelsea if he knows the options of better projects are open to him. This will undoubtedly create uncertainty in the Chelsea camp, and the best thing Abramovich and the Chelsea hierarchy can do is back the Italian in the transfer market and try to give him what he wants, as he’s proved he knows what he’s doing by delivering major silverware in his first season.
I was at Wembley on Sunday and the Community Shield performance seemed flat. Chelsea didn’t have the spark they had all of last season and that may be due to missing Hazard, but Willian and Pedro are still brilliant players. The flat performance for me is down to the negative attitude surrounding the club. It’s infecting the dressing room, potentially also emanating from Conte himself. His energy and passion was thrived off by the Chelsea players, and he seems to be going into the new season with his head down. Talking to SkySports he said “I hope to be able to improve our squad. The transfer market is not finished. We want to be competitive and we want to fight for the title again. The club knows my priorities… It’s a great challenge for us to try and retain the title but we are working hard”. Conte’s stance on Matic wasn’t much more upbeat or reassuring either, as he paid tribute to what he described a ‘top player’ – “Matic knows very well what I think about him. The importance for me about this player, who is a really good player, a top player, very important for our team, but sometimes you must accept this crazy transfer market. And sometimes you must accept different decisions. But he is a great loss for us”. As Gary Neville rightly commented after, it’s strange for a manager to be so complimentary of a player who’s left for a rival, but it only further suggests Conte’s disappointment at this years window.
Jafar Tabaqchali, a Manchester United fan, had this to say on one of his sides rivals for the title: “After the season Chelsea had last year, I was really worried about how they’d do this season. Their first XI was arguably the best in the league when you consider individual ability and the system, but their squad overall was lacking. So I’d assumed after winning the league at a canter, Abramovich would have bankrolled Conte and added some much needed depth. Bakayauko is a good signing, he offers something different to what they already have. But selling Matic, just means he essentially comes in as a replacement. The same could be said of Morata. A technically capable striker who offers a lot more guile in attack than what they’ve had. But it’s difficult to say if he’s better than Costa, and losing Solanke and Costa (most likely) means they lose depth up front. Admittedly signing Rudiger will help a lot with their defensive depth, I just don’t think it’s enough especially considering they’ve also loaned out a bunch of their youngsters (shock) who could’ve played a part in the first team. If they can keep everybody fit they’ll have a really good season but with European football adding lots of extra games, I don’t really see that happening”. It’s an interesting view to have of the Champions and a side who will challenge United for all the major honours, whilst one that certainly suggests that fans may not fear Chelsea as they did last year. I certainly can’t say I do, having predicted them to win the title last season (correctly), but haven’t this year.
Supposedly Conte wants what I, and many would suggest they need. New wing-backs, a central midfielder and another defender who are happy to play as back ups. The XI is there but the depth may cost them over the season. Are fans and pundits right to worry so much? Maybe not. If you look back, Chelsea have never really been a club blessed with phenomenal depth, they’ve just done well with injuries and maintaining players’ fitness levels. I think they should look to add to appease Conte’s fears and settle the club whilst bringing their star players some competition, but I don’t think their title chances rest on it.
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