Being 3-0 down at home to Burnley at half time on the opening day of the season was not a scenario Chelsea fans envisaged following our title win in May. The optimism that Conte brought to the club seems to have all but evaporated, the man himself looks frustrated and the team look lacklustre. Again, the board appears to be thinking business and assuming the current squad, because they’ve recently won the league, could do so again despite the demands of the Champions League and other clubs’ investment.
Last year, we had the best squad. Although Spurs were superb, their lack of quality on the bench was the main factor in their unsuccessful title bid, in my humble opinion. Man for man, it would be difficult to say which first team was better last year; Chelsea or Spurs. However, we had the likes of Begovic, Willian and Fabregas on the bench—all of whom would get in most other teams in the league—whereas Spurs had little to offer. Now though, it’s us who have a thin squad and a lack of options, a lack of plan B.
We go into the game with Spurs this weekend looking serious underdogs. Injuries and suspensions leave Conte with a tough battle. Our central midfield is threadbare, with only Kante available from our usual first team squad. Andreas Christensen, who had been used as a central midfielder before, may feature and a change in system may be on the cards too.
The bench will be filled with a number of young players who are yet to prove themselves at the club—maybe this is a case of “be careful what you wish for” following many fans’ frustrations at the lack of youth team involvement. It could be to the contrary though, and work in our favour. Perhaps a few hidden gems may be unearthed. But when our real youthful talent has either been sold or loaned out, it does make you wonder if this is idealistic beyond belief.
Ake and Chalobah have both been sold, players who have proved their worth already, the latter at a criminally low fee and without a buyback clause. Reuben Loftus-Cheek is another who could play centrally for Chelsea and, although a loan move is probably a good thing in the long run, he is unavailable too due to his move to Crystal Palace for the season. Countless other young players have been loaned out too (five or six to Vitesse, as usual).
This logistical decision is somewhat forgivable on its own, but the loss of four other key members of our title winning squad is what concerns me. I’ve mentioned Begovic, whom we sold for £10m; you may deem replacing the Bosnian with Caballero on a free transfer a decent bit of business, but I’m just not filled with confidence by the latter’s abilities—he was back up to Claudio Bravo at City last year, which speaks volumes.
There was little to be done about JT leaving. We couldn’t promise him first team football but he deserves to be playing. It was an emotional departure and the end of an era. But now we lack his leadership. Despite Terry not featuring regularly during our title winning campaign, his presence and influence in the dressing room and on the training field will be almost impossible to replace. Cahill was the obvious choice for the armband but his qualities are miles behind JT.
Great teams have leaders all over the pitch. Bizarre decisions have been made this summer over the futures of two of ours from last season: Matic and Costa. Why on earth we have let Matic go, to Utd of all teams, I cannot comprehend; he is a seriously influential player on most games he plays in. And for Conte to dismiss Costa so readily in the same window is a serious mistake. Predictions can be made over the future form of new-boy Morata, who took his goal exceptionally well on Saturday to make it 3-1, but losing Costa, losing an almost certain 20+goals a season, is a real blow. Perhaps Conte got fed up with Diego’s talk of China in January and, fiery as they both are, their relationship diminished.
Replacements have come in, to an extent: Rudiger for JT and Bakayoko for Matic and Caballero and Morata who I have both already mentioned. Only one of these has Premier League experience and only a little in any case. I don’t doubt the quality of each of the outfield players but compared to the signings made at the beginning of last season, they will have to cut their teeth in the Prem. Kante, Alonso and David Luiz all knew the Premier League well—our new signings this season do not.
The concern here for me lies in the relationship between the Board and Conte, and resultantly Conte and his players. We cannot let another top manager go, especially so soon after his unexpectedly triumphant first season and we cannot go through another behind-the-scenes mystery—we seem to have had countless.
Still, by nature I have to look at the positives. We fought back bravely on Saturday despite being down to 9 men (we never do things the easy way!) and although we lost, Morata had a solid debut. Willian had a good game too; I can see him playing a key part in the season to come. And with Hazard and Pedro to come back from injury, our forward line will be lethal. If we are to win anything this year, the performances of Hazard in particular need to be world class. Furthermore, Conte is not the type of manager to let this slip up have lasting effects—he is not arrogant enough to commit to one system of play and he will have other ideas in mind when picking his starting eleven on Sunday. It will be interesting to see how he plays it, and if we bring in any more signings before the window closes.