2015-16 was a complete disaster for Chelsea, the reigning Champions suffering a horror start with Jose Mourinho embroiled in controversy following his treatment of trainer Eva Carneiro, his dogmatic approach causing rifts in the dressing room and star players such as Eden Hazard shadows of their former selves. A lack of squad depth was exposed, Mourinho sacked way too late and Guus Hiddink brought in to see out the season as the Blues eventually finished in 10th place. I had a chat with Phil Lythell from ESPN FC about the upcoming season:
New era at Stamford Bridge
Highly rated Italian tactician Antonio Conte takes over after impressing with a weak Italian squad at Euro 2016, which followed three successive Serie A titles at Juventus. Conte’s record in Turin was impressive, 114 games played, 83 wins, 24 draws and 7 losses with 219 goals scored and 67 conceded. In 2011-12 during Conte’s first season in charge Juventus were undefeated, in 2013-14 I Bianconeri won every home game.
Known as a strict disciplinarian and demanding his players to run themselves into the ground for the benefit of the team, Conte could be exactly what the Chelsea players need to get their careers back on track. Roman Abramovich and the Stamford Bridge faithful will certainly be hoping he can turn their fortunes around.
Ins and Outs
Mohamed Salah, Papy Djilobodji and Abdul Rahman Baba have been offloaded with promising striker Michy Batshuayi joining from Marseille for €39M and Leicester’s midfield enforcer N’Golo Kante brought in for €35M. Speculation surrounds Diego Costa’s future but with no European football at Stamford Bridge this season, Conte will turn all his attention to the Premier League and FA Cup.
The goalkeeper position is covered with Thibaut Courtois well supported by Asmir Begovic. Chelsea’s defence hasn’t been strengthened with the centre back position still likely to be a rotation between Kurt Zouma, Gary Cahill and John Terry. Kurt Zouma is ahead of schedule after suffering a serious knee injury against Manchester United in February, the 21 year old likely to be a key figure for Chelsea this season. Michael Hector and Matt Miazga will have to be patient or go out on loan as they wait for an opportunity.
In the fullback positions César Azpilicueta and Branislav Ivanovic are likely to start, but with the Serbian such a disaster last season and at times this pre season his days may be numbered. Kenedy could get more playing time at left back with Azpilicueta switching to the right, Conte may also give playing time to promising 19 year old Ola Aina.
Blues supporters will be hoping N’Golo Kante has the same impact as compatriot Claude Makelele in the defensive midfield role. Kante will likely be partnered with Nemanja Matic, Oscar or Cesc Fàbregas with backup options John Obi Mikel or Ruben Loftus-Cheek. Conte will need to find a balance which allows each player to play to their strengths.
Michy Batshuayi has been signed from Marseille for €39M to partner Diego Costa up front. Speculation surrounds the Brazilian/Spanish striker and his ability to fit into Conte’s philosophy, but if he can recapture his 2014-15 form where he scored 20 goals at almost 1 goal a game then Chelsea will likely flourish. Loïc Rémy could be used as bait for another incoming transfer, 20 year old Bertrand Traoré could be an improver and should get game time in the cup competitions.
In the wide attacking positions Chelsea have Juan Cuadrado, Eden Hazard, Willian, Pedro and Victor Moses. Hazard and Willian will be first choice but Conte has an abundance of players in that position that he can use to find the best combinations. If Eden Hazard can recapture his best form Chelsea should ensure a return to the Champions League. Hazard’s whoscored.com stats show a dramatic loss of form in 2015-16:
Last season was a horror show for Chelsea with Conte’s arrival initially appearing to be just what this squad needs. Kante’s arrival could be the catalyst to get the team playing winning football again, but question marks remain around an unchanged defence, with much responsibility likely to be on Kurt Zouma’s shoulders. The Diego Costa situation needs to be resolved, but if he stays and Eden Hazard recaptures his best form, expect Chelsea to be in the top 4 and an outside chance for an unlikely title chase.