What is failure? The term itself is subjective and there is no general rule of thumb when it comes to failure, but for Chelsea, anything less than finishing in the top four of the Premier League can be classed as such.
Antonio Conte won the title in his first season in English football, but it’s unrealistic to expect them to do it again. The Manchester clubs have invested well, it would seem, and the top of the table is set to be one of the most competitive yet, arguably with six teams all capable of finishing first.
Based on their performance in yesterday’s Community Shield, Conte will be left worried ahead of the new season. In fact, the warning signs have been there throughout the summer. The defence was disjointed and sub-par, creativity was left lacking in the final third whilst the squad itself looked desperately thin.
RealSport asks whether Chelsea are doomed to fail in the coming season.
The smallest squad in the Premier League
It’s a close call between Chelsea and Tottenham for the smallest squad in the Premier League, but it’s concerning for the Blues that they’ve added three new faces over the summer and actually appear weaker than when they finished the previous season in May.
Tiemoue Bakayoko arrived from Monaco, but Nemanja Matic left. Whilst Bakayoko is arguably an upgrade on the Serb, it leaves the Blues without depth, especially since Nathaniel Chalobah was sold to Watford and Ruben Loftus-Cheek loaned to Crystal Palace.
What happens if Bakayoko is injured? Well, he already is and will miss the start of the season, leaving Conte with N’Golo Kante and Cesc Fabregas, a midfield duo that lacks the defensive strength of last year, on which the team’s system thrived.
Alvaro Morata joins the strike-force, but he’s replacing Diego Costa. Instead of just one untrusted back-up in Michy Batshuayi to support the reliable 20+ goals per season Spaniard, Conte now has two relatively unproven forwards.
Antonio Rudiger was signed from Roma to bolster the defence, but it was a case of one in, two out as both John Terry and Kurt Zouma left on a free transfer to Aston Villa and on loan to Stoke, respectively. Although Andreas Christensen returns from his two-year loan at Borussia Monchengladbach, will he be trusted to deputise in the Premier League?
The issue with wing backs
That’s three new faces at Stamford Bridge and a weaker-looking squad to begin the season, depleted of numbers and lacking enough quality to improve on performances last year. This issue, though, is most pronounced with Chelsea’s wing backs.
Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso were solid options on the flanks of the back five, tracking back and bombing forward at high intensity for 90 minutes every week, but that will change significantly when asked to do so twice each week. It’s entirely unrealistic to expect them to play to such high levels of intensity in the Premier League and Champions League.
The key to success is a useful rotation policy to ensure key players remain fit and healthy all season long, but Conte has left himself without the personnel to do so. Both Moses and Alonso’s performances will drop and they may find themselves more prone to injury.
One injury away from disaster
On the topic of injuries, imagine what would happen if Eden Hazard got himself injured. Oh wait…
Against Arsenal, Chelsea were lacking in attack and missed Hazard’s decisive influence in the final third. Moses scored from a set piece and, other than that, Chelsea very much played on the back foot in a counter-attacking mind-set. However, they lacked the attacking impetus and directness that Hazard provides.
Pedro, for all his quality, tried his best to imitate the Belgian’s influence, but he can’t do what Hazard does in that free role. The Spaniard is best in a structured role on the right and frankly he isn’t as creative as Hazard.
It was a noted feature of their game last year that they lacked creativity without Hazard and struggled to break down low-block defensive systems, and it could be worse in 2017/18.
Signing Morata is a gamble
How could it possibly get worse than Hazard being injured? When Hazard was injured for parts of last season, albeit extremely infrequently, Chelsea could rely on their bullish striker Diego Costa to dig them out of trouble. Through sheer brute strength or desire, Costa would find a goal from somewhere; he just had that quality.
Without his 20 Premier League goals, Chelsea would not have won the title.
Alvaro Morata, a big-money acquisition from Real Madrid, represents a different option altogether from Costa. That’s manageable, though, if Conte makes some slight tactical adjustments, but his signing is still a gamble nonetheless.
Costa was the catalyst that brought Hazard and Pedro to life, the focal point of the front three, and there’s no guarantee Morata will adopt the role as well as his predecessor did. Last season was the first time he scored double digit goals (15) in the league in his career, a terrible record for a £70 million 24-year-old from Juventus and Madrid.
The point is that Morata doesn’t guarantee goals in the same way Costa did, hence the gamble.
RealSport verdict: Struggle ahead
Chelsea won the Premier League last season because they didn’t have to contend with Champions League football, it’s as simple as that. Conte had the time per week to meticulously work with his players and keep them fresh, fit and healthy.
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The Blues were lucky with the manageable amount of injuries they suffered and consequently were able to play to a high level of intensity each week. It’s not possible to do so twice-a-week without a bigger squad and Chelsea’s current squad size leaves a lot to be desired.
Currently, Chelsea are one injury to a key player away from a shock season. It’s going to be a mighty struggle.
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