Remember that old saying – what falls faster, a bowling ball or a feather? Well it turns out that the correct answer to that question is Chelsea Football Club, whose fall from grace this season has been spectacular. Despite Guus Hiddink’s best efforts at forging a late-season surge, this will go down as a stupendous failure of a season for the reigning champions of England.
With Antonio Conte looming over the club like a sword of Damocles for some players and a saving grace for others, what can he do to bring Chelsea back to their best?
The John Terry dilemma
One of the first decisions Conte has to make is also perhaps one of the biggest – whether or not to keep John Terry. The long-serving central defender announced earlier this year that he has not been offered a new contract despite reportedly being desperate to continue playing for the club where he has spend almost all of his career. Chelsea have already gone through an rocky experience similar to this with Frank Lampard and many fans were outraged that he was allowed to leave. In a time of transition when Chelsea are so desperately in need of leaders and players whoplay for the badge, Terry could be instrumental and I think Conte will want to have him around for a little while longer.
The form of big players
Part of the problem with Chelsea this season has been the form of some of their key players and Eden Hazard embodies this problem perfectly. The reigning PFA Player of the Year, at time of writing (though I’m not worried that this will change any time soon), has not scored a single league goal this season and if you think he’s trading his scoring form for playmaking ability then I’ll direct you to his pitiful three league assists. With players like Hazard and Matic having dire seasons it’s no surprise that the team’s form has also been terrible. Conte has to find a way of lifting these players back to their best or move them on, although this may be easier said than done with Hazard not exactly hot property right now.
Working out what formation to play will define Chelsea’s approach to the season and direct their transfer policy. Conte loves the 4-2-4 approach with a deep playmaker alongside someone with a real engine. Fabregas seems the likely candidate to be the playmaker but, with Matic in poor form and Ramires bathing in Chinese money, Chelsea will need to look for a hard working accompaniment to Fabregas. The other option is a 5-3-2, focusing on his Italian background of solid defence. I think this would be a better option if John Terry were to stay as he could act as a sweeper with the other central defenders drifting wider when the full backs go forwards.
As with most managers, Conte will be judged initially on the success of his summer transfer policy. Getting rid of the dead wood will of course be the priority and players like Ivanovic need to be shown the door in order for Chelsea to take steps forwards.
Whether John Terry leaves or not, Conte needs a world-class experienced central defender to stabilise what has been a very wobbly back line. Rumours have been flying that Chelsea have made a bid for Sergio Ramos but I don’t think his disciplinary record is quite what Chelsea need, as good as he may be and John Stones is too full of mistakes currently. Ideally a practiced international like Leonardo Bonucci with title-winning experience at Juventus is exactly the sort of player Chelsea will be looking for to lead the likes of Zouma at the back. He would fit perfectly into a 5-3-2 system having played alongside two other central defenders at Juventus.
The other position that Chelsea need to strengthen is the heart of central midfield. Whether he decides upon the 4-2-4 system or not, Chelsea need a hard working central midfielder to run himself into the ground while Fabregas picks the passes. Arturo Vidal would be ideal having played this role under Conte before and he is one of the best in the world at it. A younger option would be Marco Verratti who has huge potential to become a great player but I think Conte would prefer to stick with what he knows and go after Vidal.
The striker debate is a difficult one. Costa isn’t a bad player by any means and unless he leaves I can’t see anyone better being brought in. Gonzalo Higuain might be one to go for if Costa were to leave but giving him competition in Bertrand Traore and other young forwards might be the key. This would also mean that if he were to get injured, Chelsea would be forced to give some young players a go, which is never a bad thing.
Don’t say it to their faces but Vitesse may as well be Chelsea’s B Team with the amount of players that go on loan there. Much has been made of how Chelsea’s loan system makes commodities out of young players (as if the rest of football is completely innocent of this) but essentially they just allow players to develop elsewhere before selling them for a profit without having done any real work. The problem with this system is that some players who are actually quite good slip through the net – Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne are cases in point. If Chelsea had Lukaku and De Bruyne this season would they have done as badly as they did? Hard to say but it’s hard to pick a Chelsea midfielder who has been better than De Bruyne has this season and Lukaku is scoring goals left and right. Conte might need to start paying attention to some of the players out on loan so he can find himself the next star, rather than watching him join Manchester City.
Conte has to bring some of the talented youth players into the first team. Chelsea’s youngsters can’t stop winning the youth competitions having just retained the UEFA Youth League so they clearly have a good crop of young talent. Picking out the best of this bunch and giving them some Premier League experience is important as Chelsea look to the future. Conte has a chance to build a legacy at Chelsea (although I think he and everyone else there wants instant success).
There is a lot to be done at Chelsea but also a good opportunity to launch the club back into the limelight. If Conte can find a system that works and players that want to play for him then Chelsea could be back competing again next season. A mix of experience and youth is vital to build for the future but I just don’t know if anyone at Chelsea particularly cares about the future. Could there be a more Neoliberal club? Probably not, but if he wins a few things I’m sure nobody will mind. It’s really not the taking part that counts.