Tuesday 26 July 2016

A Year In Blue: Looking Back To Move Forward

It goes without saying that 2015/16 was pretty dire by Chelsea’s standards. A tenth place finish in the Premier League – our lowest for a decade – was matched in pitifulness by early exits from the FA and League Cups.

And while a run to the Last 16 of the Champions League saved some face, frankly that is the absolute minimum expectation from this squad of players in Europe’s premier club competition. As straw-clutching goes, that’s right up there.

But with a talented new manage that has a habit of winning things, plus a couple of exciting new signings, means that Blues fans can look forward to the 2016/17 campaign with some excitement. Expectation, rather than hope, is the order of the day.

One to Forget

The writing was on the wall for Chelsea’s season as early as June/July, when Petr Cech was shown the door and, in dire need of attacking options, Jose Mourinho decided to bring in Radamel Falcao. Not such a special decision from the Special One, there.

Cech was always going to be second choice to Thibaut Courtois, but when you are challenging on four fronts a reliable second fiddle goalkeeper is a necessity. Asmir Begovic, Cech’s replacement, is solid enough but sometimes staying loyal to those who have served you so well is the better option.

Mind you, having won the title with relative ease the season before, Mourinho could be forgiven for not making wholesale changes to the squad.

What was worrying was the form in pre-season however, where we failed to register a single win and lost to Arsenal in the Community Shield at Wembley. A lack of fitness and cohesion was obvious, and with Mourinho seemingly selecting his back four by picking names out of a hat it was no surprise to see the Blues struggling in the first few months of the campaign. Everybody agrees that the Special One had outstayed his welcome by this point.

Guus Hiddink came in and did his level best to turn things around, and while he got Eden Hazard and Diego Costa playing again, and John Terry back in the mix, it was all too little, too late. The 2015/16 can happily be consigned to the dustbin of history.

New Faces, New Hope

With a line firmly etched under last season’s disappointment, we can look ahead to the new campaign with renewed vigour. Antonio Conte has been brought in and we can look forward to his winning style of football – a run which includes four consecutive Serie A titles with Juventus. As further evidence, anybody who witnessed his Italian side’s fine displays at Euro 2016 will know that this is a coach who knows how to get the best from his players.

Conte has acted fast in the transfer market, bringing in Leicester’s outstanding N’Golo Kante and the promising Belgian striker Michy Batshuayi, who will add pace and forward motion in attack. There are rumours – as ever at this time of the year – that the Italian is in the market for further reinforcements, with names as varied as Carlos Tevez, Kostas Manolas and Joao Mario being linked, and it will be interesting who comes through the door at Stamford Bridge given that the lure of Champions League football is a carrot that cannot be dangled – perhaps for one year only, anyway.

New defensive recruits would be welcomed too, particularly if Conte decides to go with his tried-and-tested 3-5-2 formation (more on that later), although this could be the campaign where young starlets such as Nathaniel Chalobah, Nathan Ake and Andreas Christensen are given a chance to shine in the first team.

The Italian Job

Throughout his managerial career Conte has favoured one of two formations: 3-5-2 or a variation of a 4-4-2. Which he decides to deploy at Chelsea is up for debate, although from our two pre-season friendlies to date it appears as though the latter could be the chosen option.

It makes sense to keep faith with a back four, despite the defensive shenanigans of last season, although Conte is known to like the security that three centre backs offers. But with two of Kurt Zouma, John Terry and Gary Cahill, a return to two in the middle is acceptable. Elsewhere, Branislav Ivanovic and Cesar Azpilicueta will continue as full backs, although young Ola Aina has impressed on the left in pre-season thus far. It could be well worth tracking his progress in the coming months.

The midfield two would likely be rotated depending on the nature of the opposition, with Kante being paired with Nemanja Matic for tougher matches and perhaps Oscar slipping into his preferred central role when extra creativity is required. On the flanks expect William and Hazard to play high up on the right and left respectively, although they will be detailed to track back should the opposition possess attacking full backs.

Up front and it is likely that Batshuayi will be given the chance to impress alongside Costa. The young Belgian played in a two with Steven Fletcher at Marseille last season, so he will know how to link up with a fellow frontman. He will surely find Costa’s physicality a great contrast to his pacey, direct style of play.

More attacking options would be welcome, particularly if the largely unimpressive Loic Remy is allowed to leave. Romelu Lukaku is one option, and his proven goalscoring record in the Premier League is certainly appealing. With rumours persisting that Costa favours a return home to Spain, a move for our former hitman looks like it has legs.