Premier League: Chelsea’s Antonio Conte must get fallen stars firing to restore club’s elite status
Chelsea should at least finish in top four if their key men perform, Conte adjusts to the English game & if he can get the club's fallen stars firing again.
"The manager is like a tailor. You must make the best dress for the team, you have to respect the characteristics and the talent of the players." Antonio Conte's words shortly after being unveiled as new Chelsea manager immediately put himself under pressure.
Lying in front of him is a torn, damaged coat made of topmost quality fabric, in Chelsea football club, that was not so long ago seen as the best one around. The Italian's job is to make it the best again, amid growing competition and of course inside a specific time frame, that could shrink anytime if the work isn't in synchronisation with the aim. That's pressure, a lot of it.
"I was born with pressure. It for me is not important." These were brave words coming from Conte, but it's equally true that only someone who could dare to say that, gets to sit in the Chelsea hot seat.
Keeping the metaphors aside, the situation is indeed a strange one for Chelsea. Their fall from grace from champions to mid-table finds a place among football's greatest riches to rags tales. It would have been the story of the Premier League last season, had Leicester not gone the other way and won the title.
Chelsea must be thankful to their former boss Claudio Ranieri for diverting the attention away from what was the worst title defense in Premier League history.
However, heading into the new Premier League season, celebrated Sky Sports pundits Paul Merson and Matt Le Tissier have backed Chelsea to end the campaign back on the summit of English football, while three out of their four top pundits believe Chelsea will finish in the top four.
It will take a brave man to tip a team – that finished tenth in the previous season – for winning the championship in the next, but in Chelsea's case it isn't that big a surprise.
If you look at the Premier League sides, Chelsea are the only unit that has the recent experience of winning the Premier League, barring Leicester City, who are unlikely to repeat their title feat. Manchester City and Manchester United have won the titles recently, but the team they had that time was completely different. More importantly, Chelsea’s win happened just fourteen months ago. Having a taste of winning a title makes quite a difference, even if you are chasing a top four spot at the business end of the season.
However, that didn’t help Chelsea last season. While it was a failure at multiple levels at the club, the sudden regression of some key members of Chelsea's squad just can't be ignored. Many would say there is a long list of those players, but if you observed closely, you could narrow it down to three or four whose fall impacted Chelsea greatly.
Branislav Ivanovic, Nemanja Matic, Cesc Fabregas and Eden Hazard. These four players' dip in form was fundamental to Chelsea's debacle. The Fabregas-Matic midfield was pivotal at the start of the 2014/15 season and did enough to secure Chelsea the title that year. Although a dip in form was evident in the second half of Chelsea's title triumph.
However, at the start of the 2015/16 campaign, the duo struggled to match the success of the previous campaign. At the same time, Ivanovic – one of the most sound full backs in the league – was having a nightmare of a season and anything and everything could go past him with utmost ease. The PFA player of the season, Eden Hazard, cut a subdued figure and was often found clueless on the pitch.
While Fabregas and Hazard showed signs of revival towards the end of the campaign, the Serbian pair of Ivanovic and Matic was completely out of sorts. Matic's struggles were so prolonged that it left Chelsea fans wondering which of his performances – Matic of 2014/15 season or the one of 2015/16 - was real and which an illusion.
Chelsea seem to have plugged that hole in central midfield with the signing of N'Golo Kante from Leicester City. Kante was one of the best players in the Premier League last season and is tipped by many to be the signing of the season, once again. The French midfielder is brilliant at winning the ball back, something that Chelsea did very well during their title winning season and did equally badly last term.
With no further additions, apart from young Belgian striker Michy Batshuayi, Conte seems to believe that Chelsea's fallen stars from last season will step up to the plate. The Italian can be pardoned for thinking that way considering he has the players with the potential of Hazard – who if he gets going can win Chelsea the title – as proven in the past and Oscar – a player with great work ethic, attitude, something which Conte admires. In addition, the pedigree of players like Fabregas, John Terry isn't easy to overlook either.
But, if there is one area of the field that has been Chelsea’s Achilles Heel, it’s their defence. Considered their greatest strength over the years, Chelsea's rearguard now lies in tatters. Club captain and legend Terry can no longer carry them single-handedly. The Blues conceded 53 times in the previous campaign, 18 more than the league's best defence and 21 more than what they themselves allowed in the championship winning 2014-15 season.
Chelsea have kept just one clean sheet in pre-season and that just reiterates the fact that the problem hasn’t gone away and the centre-back pairing of Terry and Gary Cahill isn't good enough anymore. Ivanovic has given enough evidence in past year that his days as a full-back or first choice centre-back are over.
That means, Chelsea are terribly short in defensive area with Kurt Zouma still recuperating from a career-threatening injury and the likes of Matt Miazga and Ola Aina too raw to step up. Even though Aina has shown great promise in pre-season, going with the 19-year-old at right back will be huge risk. So there is little surprise that Chelsea are chasing Napoli's central defender Kalidou Koulibaly, and if reports are to be believed, the club is set to cough up £50 million for his services.
However, even Koulibaly's arrival won't completely address Chelsea's defensive woes, as the right back problem remains unsolved. With Chelsea not linked to any prominent players playing in that position, it looks likely that the responsibility will be shared between Ivanovic and Aina.
On the other flank, Conte would have to once again rely on Cesar Azpilicueta to raise the level of his performance. That's something that is likelier to happen compared to the other flank, considering the Spaniard wasn't too off the mark in the previous season.
Diego Costa remains a hanging sword on Chelsea's head as the striker's erratic nature has hurt Chelsea in the past. There were reports that the Spaniard wanted away, but Conte seems to have convinced him to stay by putting a hand on his back when needed, as well as giving him the stick if required.
Costa was in the stands during the friendly against Real Madrid amid reports that Conte was upset with the striker's attitude on the training pitch. The Italian has wasted no time in making it clear who will call the shots in the Chelsea dressing room. He has also banned certain food items from the Chelsea cafeteria, that he feels could affect the players' fitness.
Chelsea have good squad depth in midfield and the likes of Pedro, Ruben Loftus-Cheek suit Conte's work-oriented style of play. ‘Work’ is a word he has used more often than once in the pre-season so far and it reflects in the increase in the number of training sessions in Chelsea's daily routine. Chelsea’s 2015 title success under Mourinho was built on strong work ethic and Conte wants to revive that aspect.
Another positive coming out of Conte's management so far is his tactical flexibility. Considering the ailing state of Chelsea's defenders, the 3-5-2, believed to be Conte's favourite system, was thrown out of the window. Conte never tried to enforce that system, which gave him so much success at Juventus, and has opted for a flat back four.
Chelsea have shuttled between a 4-2-4, 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1 and a 4-1-3-2 formations during pre-season. The Italian has shown no hesitancy in changing the system mid-way in matches as well. During the pre-season friendly against AC Milan, Chelsea struggled in the first half playing in a 4-2-4 system, that the Blues' players were clearly not used to playing in.
Conte quickly switched to a 4-3-3 in the second half as Chelsea ran out 3-1 winners. This is the kind of tactical flexibility Chelsea didn't have under Jose Mourinho. The Portuguese carried on with the same set of players and the same system and Chelsea paid for it dearly.
Playing two strikers upfront appears to be on Conte's mind, and hence Chelsea have been lining up a move to get Romelu Lukaku back to Stamford Bridge. However, the Italian doesn't seem hell bent on playing two forwards and has also opted to go with a lone striker when required.
It may be a while before Chelsea starts playing the Conte way and the key for Conte will be to produce the results during that time, failing to do so would risk his job.
In a season where it is impossible to predict the outcome at either end of the table, Conte's Chelsea might take time to get going. But with Hazard looking like his old self again in pre-season, only a fool can completely rule Chelsea out of the title race, especially with the Blues having no European commitment this season. However, considering Chelsea's defensive struggles and loss of confidence after last season, a top four finish appears to be a more realistic target.
Chelsea should get there if their key men perform and Conte adjusts to the English game. Conte, though, according to his own admission is here to be number one. He is looking to follow the footsteps of Carlo Ancelotti, Roberto Mancini and Claudio Ranieri, as Premier League's new Italian king and it will take a special effort to get there.
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