Thursday, 4 August 2016

Blues on the Up: Notes from a Hectic Pre-Season

We can never read too much into pre-season, but any improvement on the disastrous summer of 2015, which served as a mere aperitif for what was to come during the campaign itself, is welcome.

Happily, we have shown signs of life in the bizarrely constructed International Champions Cup, and now the squad can return to the UK from the other side of the pond with their heads held high.

There are still defensive kinks that need ironing out, but from an attacking perspective Antonio Conte has already got his men playing some outstanding football.

The International Champions Cup Report

Defeated Liverpool 1-0 in California

Against Liverpool we showcased some fantastic one-touch attacking play, with the two wingers playing high up on the pitch and Oscar dictating the game from the middle of the park. Ironically, despite our progressive attacking style, it was a rather old fashioned route to goal that did the business: a Gary Cahill header from a Cesc Fabregas corner doing the business.

It was a match full of positives for the Blues, not discounting Fabregas’ rather crude challenge on Ragnar Klavan that earnt him a straight red, with the defence looking solid in their work and Victor Moses’ pace and trickery suggesting he could play more of a role in Antonio Conte’s first team plans this time around.

In a game of few chances anyway, to restrict an attacking Liverpool starting line-up to just a single shot on target will have pleased Conte tremendously.

Lost 2-3 to Real Madrid in Michigan

This was a bit of a blip in progress. Three-nil down at half-time to a Real Madrid outfit far from full strength was something of a disappointment for the Blues, although winning’ the second half 2-0 is a measure of a dominant 45 minutes.

There were caveats to consider too: Marcelo’s opener took a huge deflection before nestling in the back of the net, and Mariano Diaz’s strike was simply unstoppable. But there is still much to work on defensively for Conte and his coaching team.

There were positives to take, however. Eden Hazard looked hungry after coming on as a second half substitute and bagged a brace, while Michy Batshuayi looked lively on his Chelsea debut: he had a decent penalty shout turned down before assisting Hazard’s second. His pace and quick feet look ideally suited to baffling Premier League defenders.

Beat AC Milan 3-1 in Minnesota

This was a much better display from Conte’s men, and in breaking down a Milan outfit set up to defend in numbers will have been very pleasing for the Italian.

Bertrand Traore, who has stood out in pre-season with his direct style, notched the first, while Oscar – who looks right at home in a slightly deeper central midfield role – pulled the strings and fond time to get on the scoresheet twice himself.

There were many positives to take once again, and it is the precision and guile in the attacking third that is most eye-catching. The Blues have now scored six in their last three games, while against Milan they registered some 17 shots on goal: 11 of which were from inside the penalty area. This stat highlights how well we are carving open opponents at the moment. A pass accuracy success rate of 86% suggests our retention of the ball is improving all the time too.

Question marks defensively remain, and while Ola Aina looks a fine prospect a new left back must be sought by Conte, particularly as he has allowed Baba Rahman to leave the club on loan. Of course, it is likely that Cesar Azpilicueta will switch to the left once Branislav Ivanovic has returned, but a progressive, dynamic full back who offers as much going forward as he does defensively will not go amiss.

Also, how Conte’s 4-2-4 formation will work in the rapid pace of the Premier League remains to be seen. He could probably get away with in Italy where the pace of the game is slower (allowing wingers to track back and take their shape), but in England, where counter attacking football is prevalent, that could pose a problem.

Chelsea Transfer Rumours

The Premier League campaign may be a week away but there is still plenty of time for Conte and his recruitment team to source new faces. As we’ve seen, defensively there are still a few things to consider, and while Kurt Zouma will return soon his lack of football recently dictates that a lengthy period of fitness finding will be required.

A general lack of pace at the back is a concern, and the continued rumour surrounding a £38 million bid for Napoli centre half Khalidou Koulibaly seems legitimate. The football press are renowned for ‘hawking’ in this country, but often there is no smoke without fire. Koulibaly, a strong and fast defender who Conte will have witnessed first hand in Serie A last season, ticks a lot of boxes.

Attempts to re-sign Romelu Lukaku are, apparently, at an advanced stage, and if that deal does get the green light then expect Diego Costa to exit stage left. It is believed that the Spaniard hankers after a return to his homeland.

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