Premier League preview: Chelsea's poor transfer window performance could prove costly in title defence
Over the last decade, Chelsea have seemed to lost some of their ruthlessness in the transfer window, which could cost them dear as they attempt to defend the Premier League trophy
Over the last decade, Chelsea have seemed to lost the ruthlessness in the transfer window it showcased during Roman Abramovich’s early years at the club. The Blues were known to get the players that they wanted by any means possible even if it meant approaching the player through illegal means like they did during their capture of Ashley Cole from Arsenal. The last player to be bought after a similar single-minded pursuit was Liverpool’s Fernando Torres in 2011.
The following transfer windows have seen the Londoners fail to land many of their transfer targets like United’s Wayne Rooney and Everton’s John Stones. This apparent sluggishness in acquiring players is contrasted by the number of high profile players allowed to leave the club. Even more astonishing is the club’s willingness to sell directly to their rivals, sometimes against the manager’s wishes.
Petr Cech and Nemanja Matic were allowed to join a club of their choosing in part because of their apparent closeness to Abramovich, who sanctioned their moves as a reward for their contribution to the club. Apart from strengthening a rival club, those moves also showed how much the manager’s word was worth at the club. Chelsea fans have long ridiculed Arsenal for selling their top players to rival clubs but now they would do well to acknowledge the fact that their club are going down the same path as the Gunners.
Failure to land top transfer target Romelu Lukaku as well as strengthening rivals Manchester United by selling them midfield enforcer Matic are only two of the setbacks the club has had to endure in the current transfer window. With the return of Champions League football to Stamford Bridge, Antonio Conte will go into what will be a long and tiring season with only 19 first-team players.
Conte did not trust social media banter specialist Mitch Batshuayi last season during Diego Costa’s absence through suspension. However, after telling Costa that his future lies away from the club and record signing Alvaro Morata adjusting to his new surroundings, Conte may be forced to rely on Batshuayi more than ever.
There is also the possibility of Conte fielding both Batshuayi and Morata in the starting line-up like he did during the pre-season match against Inter. That would mean a change in system from the 3-4-3 used last season to a 3-5-2 Conte used during his last season at Juventus with devastating effect.
Chelsea will have to make do without their best player Eden Hazard and new signing Timoue Bakayoko for the start of the season as the duo recover from their respective injuries. The absence of Hazard will hurt the team more, as after Costa’s expulsion from the team, the responsibility of leading the attack has fallen squarely on the shoulders of the Belgian trickster.
With Manchester United snapping up Lukaku from right underneath their noses, the Chelsea hierarchy quickly went after and signed Real Madrid’s Morata for a club record £70 million. After his arrival, Morata claimed that he was destined to work with Conte, a manger who he believes, trusts him the most.
"I know Antonio wanted me in the past and I really want to work with Antonio, and finally destiny put us together," Morata told Chelsea's official website. Conte himself has been an admirer of Morata and he signed the Spaniard during his time at Juventus but left the club to manage the Italian national team weeks after Morata’s arrival.
Another of Chelsea’s new signing, Bakayoko, arrived from AS Monaco after a long drawn transfer process. In N’Golo Kante and Bakayoko, Conte has perfect balance in middle of the park. The French duo are effective ball winners with Bakayoko especially good in one-on-one situations.
However, the lack of able back-up to the duo will be a concern for Conte, who only has Cesc Fabregas to fall back on. The Spaniard, though technically one of the best attacking players in Chelsea, is a defensive liability.
The acquisition of Antonio Rudiger has bolstered Chelsea’s defensive options. Conte has the option of starting Rudiger on the right of the back three and shifting the talented Cesar Azpilicueta to either of the wingback positions.
Compared to their title rivals, Chelsea look depleted of players who can make an impact coming off the bench. This is especially prominent with Conte’s lack of options at centre midfield. The departures of Matic to United and Nathaniel Chalobah to Watford as well as the loan move of Ruben Loftus-Cheek to Crystal Palace leaves Conte short on options in midfield.
Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses defied all expectations last season as they ably patrolled the wings allowing the likes of Hazard, Pedro and Willian to lead the attack from down the wings. However, the duo aren’t exactly Champions League winning quality and expecting them to deliver all the time against the talents on display at the European stage is foolish at best.
Conte’s success last season was mainly down to changing the system to a 3-4-3 with the wingbacks supporting the forwards and David Luiz deployed in a sweeper defender position. However, over the course of two matches, Jose Mourinho effectively nullified his Italian counterpart’s tactics. Conte could only watch as Ander Herrera man-marked Hazard out of the match as United hit Chelsea on the counter with the pace of Marcus Rashford. Conte looked lost for ideas as his team lost for only the fourth time last season. The lack of a credible plan B will hurt the teams chances when the going will get tough towards the end of the season.
By the end of the 2017-18 Premier League season, Conte would have achieved either of two distinctions depending upon Chelsea’s title defence. Win the league, and he becomes only the third manager after Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho to defend his Premier League crown. Endure a trophy-less season and he joins Carlo Ancelotti and Mourinho as Chelsea managers sacked a season after winning the league. For now, the Chelsea board’s relatively poor transfer performance is setting the Italian up to accomplish the latter.
Images were broadcast of Belgium forward Hazard cheerfully chatting with his old team-mates after Wednesday's 2-0 loss at Stamford Bridge, which consigned Madrid to a 3-1 aggregate defeat.
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