The ridiculous rise in revenues due to Premier League clubs this season, thanks to the new television rights contracts with Sky and BT, meant this window was always likely to be witness some transfer related lunacy. The premium charged to top sides in England (whether they’re doing business with each other or clubs abroad) has been long noted, but some of the fees quoted and actually paid to acquire mediocre players this summer, has been astonishing.
I’m very glad it’s over. Not only has it been relentlessly puzzling, trying to work out how certain valuations have been reached (£30m for Yannick Bolasie! £25m for Georginio Wijnaldum!) but it’s also been depressing, watching a culture of greed and petulance arise from fans on social media, as they berate their clubs for not spending tens of millions on the latest player to have linked in the Daily Mirror. All very undignified, in my opinion.
Anyway, looking back, I think it’s difficult not to be very satisfied with Chelsea’s work this summer (even if it was all left later than intended). Quality recruitment was always going to be difficult this year. With no Champions League football to offer and with top players unsettled, the club might not have represented as attractive an offer as it has done in the past. Our clear and desperate need to strengthen allowed those we negotiated with to perhaps drive a harder bargain, also.
Overall, I think we did very well. Not only did we manage to keep our best players but we managed to fill every notable gap in the squad without drastically overspending. It seems we’ve done a good job selecting players who are all extremely happy to be part of the squad and prepared (and able) to contribute in the long term. There’s a nice balance to the team now, with a good blend of qualities in all areas, which should allow the coach to employ a number of different systems.
Here are some thoughts on our four main transfers this summer…
1) Michy Batshuayi – The young Belgain has made a great early impression; his animated interviews and playful interaction with fans on Twitter has made him a popular figure and he’s played well so far. Crucially he seems to provide both good back up for Diego Costa, and also the option to change our approach. Questions remain over whether he could effectively lead the line on his own, should Costa become injured for a significant period of time. He doesn’t look like a great target man; his talent seems to be more based around timing his runs and intelligently using the space in the penalty area Chelsea forwards aren’t often afforded. He clearly has the talent and the attitude to adapt and improve however. l I think he’ll be a long term fan favourite.
2) N’Golo Kante – Very few transfers this summer stand out for their value. Manchester Utd obviously did well to sign Zlatan Ibrahimovic on a free transfer; I think Southampton got Sofiane Boufal for a very reasonable price; Crystal Palace securing Loic Remy for just £7m may very well save them from relegation. Still, I would argue that no signing did as much to instantly improve the prospects of a side as did Chelsea’s purchase of Kante. The Frenchman is simply the best destroyer in Europe. The combination of his intelligence, his stamina and his technique makes him a world class player; the support he offers the defence, as well as the freedom he offers the side’s more attacking players is invaluable. He is probably the club’s best signing since Eden Hazard.
3) Marcos Alonso – Probably the most understated of our main acquisitions. The Spaniard was solid, if rather unspectacular at Sunderland a few years back, he has allegedly improved his overall defending having spent two years in what he called ‘the defending masterclass’ of Serie A; he’s become an impressive header of the ball and free kick taker also. There’s no real worry about him adapting his game having already spent time in the Premier League, though he likely will need to make a few more key improvements to his game if he is to become a mainstay and leader in the side. Already however, the prospect of him starting on the left and Cesar Azpilicueta reverting to the right, instantly improves the back line on paper.
4) David Luiz – The resigning of the Brazilian was by far the most controversial of our acquisitions – unsurprising given the fact he split opinion quite sharply even before he left. Very few at the time could deny that the club had done well to sell Luiz for such a huge fee to PSG but equally few could contest that since he departed, the defence has been lacking the physicality and the proactivity he invariably supplied. I always tended to defend Luiz when people criticised his defending. I think his talent is extraordinary and self-evident, and whenever he made mistakes it always seemed to me to be for want of discipline or composure, as opposed to intelligence or awareness.
I think we may find his abilities further up the pitch may be utilised more regularly by Conte, than any of his five previous managers. With the Italian unwilling to risk starting Cesc Fabregas, Luiz’ long passing ability from deep could become vital. I think it may well become a key tactic to play Luiz as a sweeper/defensive midfield player in a 3-4-3 type formation (below) in some bigger matches, allowing Kante to press further up the pitch. The genuine pleasure Luiz seemed to express at returning is a promising sign also. Conte’s desire not for a team but for a family has become closer to being realised with the defender’s re-introduction to the side; he is a proud and reliable (if slightly mental) member of the Chelsea family.
There are still some problems to address with the squad. It’s a shame a deal wasn’t to be reached with Roma for Radja Nainggolan; Conte’s scepticism over Cesc would suggest he still feels the midfield to be lacking the aggressiveness and energy with the Belgian would have provided. I’m still not certain whether the manager’s decision to omit the Spaniard from the XI is due to the lack of protection afforded him by the defence and midfield, or whether he feels regardless of the supporting cast, the creativity of Fabregas just doesn’t compensate for his immobility in the middle of the pitch.
I’m also sceptical with regards to our depth in attacking wide positions. I don’t subscribe to the current prevailing opinion that Willian is a liability in the side – there are weaknesses to his game but there are a good number of positives he brings to side, especially in comparison to those offered by Pedro and Victor Moses, who contribute very sporadically and who probably are playing above their level in the Chelsea first team. The defence arguably feels one man short also. But with Andreas Christensen, Nathan Ake and Tomas Kalas all out on loan, and with Fikayo Tomori and Jay Dasilva performing well in the youth team, it’s important that potential places are preserved for them. I think we’re set in that regard.
Asking whether this team can win the title seems a trivial question given last season’s winners, obviously this Chelsea side is good enough. For now the two Manchester clubs remain stronger favourites, but with our new signings I think a top four position is to be expected rather than hoped for. I trust this group to live up to the expectations currently placed upon them. And that’s a sentence I’m not sure I could’ve honestly written about Chelsea a few months ago. Things are definitely looking up.