2016/17 Season Recap
Antonio Conte didn’t have the best of introductions to the Premier League with Chelsea, losing to rivals Arsenal and Liverpool in the early season, though that soon turned around as he unleashed his 3-4-3 system, the defining tactical change of 2016/17.
From conceding three goals in one half to Arsenal, his squad went on a Premier League record 13-game winning streak which laid the foundation of their title charge. Though the title wasn’t sealed until their third last game due to Tottenham sitting just behind, Chelsea set a record for the most wins in a Premier League season, with 30 victories.
In the other domestic competitions, Chelsea reached the final of the FA Cup, though lost at Wembley to Arsenal 2-1, while they were knocked out in the fourth round of the EFL cup by West Ham. Due to a poor campaign the year before, Chelsea did not take place in either European competition, which was somewhat of a blessing, allowing them to focus solely on domestic success.
Several Chelsea players had standout years; N’Golo Kante won the PFA Player Of The Year, while Eden Hazard was also one of the competition’s best. Thibaut Courtois won the Golden Glove award for the most clean sheets, while Antonio Conte won the Manager of the Year award. Conte, however, utilised only 13 players regularly, keeping a relatively tight squad.
Willy Caballero, GK (Manchester City, Free Transfer)
Antonio Rudiger, CB (AS Roma, £29 million)
Tiemoue Bakayoko, CM (Monaco, £40 million)
Alvaro Morata, ST (Real Madrid, £58 million)
John Terry, CB (Aston Villa, Free Transfer)
Nathan Ake, CB (Bournemouth, £20 million)
Bertrand Traore, FW (Lyon, £8.8 million)
Tammy Abraham, ST (Swansea City, Loan)
Ruben Loftus-Cheek, CM (Crystal Palace, Loan)
Nathaniel Chalobah, CM (Watford, Undisclosed amount)
Most important player: Alvaro Morata
In their hunt for a new striker, Chelsea eventually secured the services of Alvaro Morata, a player with a previous relationship with Conte, and his on field form will be crucial to Chelsea’s success.
To replicate last year’s success, it’s crucial that Morata can be of similar value to that of Diego Costa. While Morata is not as strong as Costa and his hold up play isn’t as polished, he’s a far better aerial threat and possesses a much cooler head.
The Matador to Costa’s bull, Chelsea fans should get used to seeing a far different temperament leading the line. From his time at Real Madrid, Morata has developed a reputation as a big game player, providing more significant goals than can be counted on one’s fingers. However, There are some doubts over his ability to provide day in, day out over the course of a full season.
With Morata, there’s the opportunity for Conte to use a 3-5-2 system, deploying both his strikers at once, pairing the Spaniard with Michy Batshuayi, which could see a more harmonious relationship if the two aren’t competing for a singular place in the team.
Morata is likely to be awarded a first team place to begin the season, based on a higher level of polish over the raw Batshuayi, though the psychology of his enormous price tag will likely play a role in that. Morata has the potential to be a 20-goal-a-season striker, and if he can do so, then Chelsea might have got the bargain of the summer.
One to watch: Andreas Christensen
Chelsea’s youth academy system of breeding players to send out on loan and eventually sell is well publicised, and it’s not too often that players break into the first team. Only four players that have come through the youth academy have started three or more Premier League games for Chelsea since the 2003/04 season.
Number five might be coming up soon though with the return of Andreas Christensen to the club after his loan spell in the Bundesliga with Borussia Monchengladbach. The central defender returns to the club with 81 games of Bundesliga experience under his belt and Gladbach’s player of the year award for the season before last.
Christensen is an excellent defender in terms of reading play, which makes up for lack of physical strength, though he is fantastic on the ball like the rest of the Chelsea defence and will aid them in playing out of the back.
While he’s likely behind the starting three centre-halves from last campaign and new arrival Antonio Rudiger in the pecking order, he’s likely to move up as the season goes on, especially if Cesar Azpilicueta moves into a wing back position. A player for the future, but he could also play a vital role this year.
Biggest weakness: Wing backs
Conte’s system is dependent on quality wing-backs, and while he has two sufficient ones in Marcos Alonso on the left and Victor Moses on the right, they aren’t world class.
While Moses is lauded for his effort and is a player reborn since returning from his numerous loan spells, he lacks some of the skill of a world-beater. Alonso is a quality attacking presence when he works his way up onto the wing, though struggles to track back and frequently exposes the Blues via his side of the pitch.
Chelsea’s pursuit of Alex Sandro from Juventus has so far been unsuccessful, while they missed out on Danilo from Real Madrid, meaning that the squad is somewhat stretched thin at this point. Willian can play as a wing back, as too can Azpilicueta, while Fikayo Tomori is currently being trained in the position; however, they will need reinforcements.
The Chelsea XI pictured consists of their first choice XI, but due to injuries and suspension, the side that lines up on opening day against Burnley won’t be the one pictured
Newly acquired Antonio Rudiger will be pressing for selection, but it’s hard to see who will give way. If there were one weak link in the Chelsea defence, it could be Gary Cahill, but as the new club captain, he’s a hard boulder to dislodge. We will likely see Azpilicueta in a wing back role against Burnley, and Rudiger start, given Moses is suspended.
While Bakayoko is slowly recovering from injury, Cesc Fabregas will likely be the man to step in for him, pairing N’Golo Kante in a midfield two with differing strengths. Kante’s defensive presence nicely compliments Fabregas’ passing wizardry.
Eden Hazard’s injury creates something of a headache for Conte; missing that level of talent is always difficult, though it does solve the Pedro/Willian dilemma of last year, allowing both to fit on the side. When Hazard returns, he should slip in the left side and expect the right wing merry-go-round to resume.
First five games
The season should begin happily as they host Burnley on the opening day; while the Clarets can mix it with the best at home (they stole a point from Chelsea last time these sides met), they are easy beats when away from Turf Moor.
An away match against Tottenham could almost be counted as a neutral venue; while a formidable opponent and the second placed team from last year, Tottenham haven’t got the best of records when playing at Wembley.
While Everton bolstered their squad over the summer transfer period, they will travel to face Chelsea during a horror run where they face both sides of Manchester, Chelsea, and Tottenham consecutively.
In a battle of the last two Premier League champions, Chelsea will see a Leicester squad that has remained mostly intact over the summer, and at the King Power Stadium, a surprise could be on the cards.
Chelsea then faces Arsenal for the fourth time in 11 games, as they played them in the last match of the previous season’s FA Cup, once in pre-season and again in the Community Shield. With each side routing each other at home once last year, Arsenal’s dominant FA cup victory, and Chelsea’s scorching win in pre-season, the tightly fought battle in the Community shield was the first close match for a while between the squads. Chelsea will have the chance to atone for their penalties loss and will be favoured at home.
For any team that’s defending a title, every result other than winning again could be seen as a failure. Though the stakes are different for Conte this year; he will have to contend with fatigue as his team battles through a European campaign, while continuing to mould his squad into something suited perfectly to his style.
While Conte is refining his team, the two Manchester sides are reloading majorly, and competition at the top will be fierce. Chelsea may not have the easiest road back to the top of the table.
While other sides in England have top talent to rival or even surpass Chelsea, and the top European teams are at a higher level, the Blues are one of the most well-drilled squads in Europe under Conte and that should hold them in good stead.
RealSport prediction: 2nd
Whilst Chelsea are still the team to beat in the Premier League, as it’s their crown to defend, their squad is looking thin and question marks remain over Morata and his ability to adequately replace Costa’s goals.
They’re one injury to a key player away from seriously struggling domestically and having to balance European and league football will prove challenging. The Blues to finish second.
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