After Chelsea endured by far their worst season under Roman Abramovich’s ownership last year, new manager Antonio Conte has something of a challenge on his hands.
Manager: Antonio Conte
Last Season: 10th
Major Players In: Michy Batshuayi (Marseille, £33m), N’Golo Kanté (Leicester City, £32m)
Major Players Out: Marco Amelia (Released), Stipe Perica (Udinese, £3.4m), Papy Djilobodji (Sunderland, £8m), Mohamed Salah (Roma, £14.5m), Nathan Aké (Bournemouth, Loan), Baba Rahman (Schalke, Loan), Bertrand Traoré (Ajax, Loan),
Andrea Pirlo once recounted how Antonio Conte introduced himself to his then-new Juventus side. Juve had yet to recover from their enforced demotion to Serie B several years previously, and had settled into life as an upper midtable side when Conte took charge.
“This squad, dear boys, is coming off two consecutive seventh-place finishes. It’s crazy. It’s shocking. I am not here for this, so it’s time to stop being so crap.”
Juventus responded by going unbeaten in the league that season, winning the Scudetto and immediately becoming the dominant force once more.
Chelsea are coming off the back of a tenth-placed finish, worse than Luigi Delneri’s Juve in 2011, so one can only imagine what sort of berating Conte gave his new squad when he first met them. Whatever it was, Cesc Fabregas is probably still in floods of tears from it.
Abramovich committed the footballing equivalent of regicide last season when he sacked José Mourinho (again), but the the fact was simply that there was no salvaging that situation. Mourinho was starting fires and picking fights and his position had become untenable.
To that end, appointing a man who is even more volatile than the current Manchester United manager might seem like a massive gamble on Abramovich’s part.
The last manager to come in and try to be authoritative from day one was André Villas-Boas. Unfortunately for him, he had neither the experience of dealing with egos nor the the reputation to back it up. The dressing room spine of John Terry, Frank Lampard, Petr Cech and Didier Drogba ran the show – a situation Mourinho had been perfectly happy with in his first spell there – and some young upstart from Porto wasn’t going to upset that.
However, times have changed. Three of the aforementioned “power trust” have gone, while Terry is surely entering his final season at the club. Their would-be influential replacements, the likes of Eden Hazard, Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa, don’t enjoy nearly the same level of support from the stands – many of them still blame those players for Mourinho’s sacking.
In that respect, Conte has taken this job with an unprecedented amount of power and control. The players have nobody to run to when Conte hurts their feelings; the fans will simply tell them that they deserved it.
But can a “beatings will continue until morale improves” approach actually work? It can, but only if they are determined enough to let it motivate them.
Ultimately, this team was spineless last season. Someone like Conte to come in and crack the whip is exactly what they need, whether they like it or not.
First off, he will have to remind his players that they are professional footballers. Eden Hazard spent most of last season sulking and pining for a move to either PSG or Real Madrid (ironically, if he had even a half decent season he would probably be at one of those two clubs right now) and Conte’s main objective right now is to get the best out of the undoubtedly talented Belgian international.
The less said about the likes of Fabregas, Nemanja Matic or Branislav Ivanovic however, the better. Conte has been outlining how important Matic is to his plans going forward, but the other two should be worried for their Stamford Bridge futures. Fabregas in particular, it’s easy to see Conte become quickly fed up with the Spaniard’s more “pedestrian” style of play.
In terms of the signings he has made, the £32m arrival of N’Golo Kanté from Leicester as something of a no-brainer. The 25-year-old was the engine in the Leicester title-winning side last season, and his high level of energy and phenomenal work rate make him an ideal signing for a Conte-managed team.
Batshuayi is an interesting one. Despite the fee – the second highest in Chelsea’s history – the pressure seems to be off for the Belgian striker. The Blues are lacking in firepower this season, with Pato and Falcao gone back to their parent clubs and Loic Remy likely to be sold, and with Diego Costa still eyeing up a move back to Atlético, Batshuayi could be the senior centre forward going into this campaign.
That said, he is likely to have a partner one way or the other. Chelsea have become used to the 4-2-3-1 formation in recent years, and Conte the 3-5-2, but there is every indication so far that neither formation will be utilised this season.
Instead, Conte will play with an attack-minded 4-2-4 formation, à la Atlético Madrid. That may finally allow Hazard to play in the centre-forward role he has craved for some time, only time will tell.
Further signings are expected, but only today Conte admitted that completing deals has become difficult in the current climate, especially for English clubs. As an example, his primary defensive target, Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly, has a price tag of £50m – almost the same price that 22-year-old John Stones went to Manchester City for earlier this week.
And yet, further signings are necessary. Conte’s Italy and Juventus sides were built on a strong defence (i.e. Buffon, Barzagli, Bonucci, Chiellini) but he does not have that luxury at Stamford Bridge. At least two new first choice defenders need to be signed, and until that happens the title will probably be beyond him and his side.
A return to the Champions League beckons for Chelsea this season, but this squad needs far than just fear and motivation to propel it back to the very pinnacle of the Premier League.
Read More About: andre villas-boas, antonio conte, branislav ivanovic, Cesc Fabregas, Chelsea, diego cota, eden hazard, guus hiddink, jose mourinho, Juventus, michy batshuayi, N'Golo Kante, nemanja matic, Premier League, Top Story