A good pre-season often isn’t much of an indicator for what lies ahead. Four weeks of the best preparation possible can very quickly come undone after a poor result on match day one (as we found out in 2011, when Andre Villas-Boas took the side to Asia and pulversied every side we played, only to draw 0-0 with Stoke in his first game that mattered). A bad pre-season however (as we learned 12 months ago) often can be a very good clue of what is about to unfold. Jose Mourinho’s bizarrely short and disjointed preparations last summer, as embarrassing in their naiveté as in their half-heartedness, set the side set up to fail miserably in their defence of the title.
Thankfully, so far all the evidence from Antonio’s Conte first ten days in charge of training, would suggest that a lack of fitness or tactical understanding isn’t likely to be a problem come the 15th August. The player’s descriptions of long double sessions in the intense heat, and of rigorous tactical drilling give a lot of cause for optimism. Already the Italian’s noted intensity and enthusiasm seems to be rubbing off on the players; their collective early acceptance of his ideas and principles can only bode well.
Without getting too carried away, here are some thoughts from pre-season so far…
As Oscar revealed in an interview yesterday, the team are being trained to play in a 4-2-4 formation to begin the season. My first intuition about this news is that it will make a nice change to have an actual system with which to relate the team, after five years of watching the same bland 4-2-3-1, in which the emphasis was always on the individuals, rather than any of the coach’s specific tactical ideas.
Conte has previously employed the system with success, winning promotion with both Bari and Siena to the Serie A but this will be the first time he has used it with a top side. It’s interesting to consider which players it will benefit and which will struggle to adapt to a more a rigid framework than they’re used to. Currently, the two first choice strikers in the squad, enjoyed the best seasons of their careers playing with striker partner (Diego Costa with David Villa (and previously Falcao at Atletico and Michy Batshuayi last season at Marseille with Georges Kevin N’Koudou). Both have the energy and the all-round skill set to drop back into midfield when we lose possession also.
Elsewhere, it’s slightly harder to predict how the midfielders in the side are likely to adapt. Both N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic (should he return to form) are ideal for a two man midfield, being predominantly defensively minded but also effective moving forwards also, provided they have space to move into. Elsewhere the likes of Cesc and Oscar make struggle slightly more, with more ground to cover and with less freedom to pick up positions between the lines, may struggle to adjust their games. I predict Kante and Cesc will start the season in the XI but I wonder how long the Spaniard will manage to keep his place.
I have similar reservations about Willian and Hazard also (surely Conte’s first choice wide-men). Both naturally number 10s it may be counter-intuitive for them to hold such wide positions. However, when the play switches, the added amounts of space in the middle of the park that comes from not playing a third, more advanced midfielder, may allow them both to be more effective when they do cut inside, especially with two centre forwards to pre-occupy the defence.
Returning Youth and Loan Players
Once again, arguably the most interesting aspect of pre-season has been to see the great number of young players signed and trained/sent away on loan over the past few seasons and how they compare to established first team stars. There’s a lot of good things to say about our loan strategy as well as the quality of our academy but for another a year it looks as though they will both fail to improve the first XI at all.
The likes of Moses, Atsu, Van Ginkel, Marin, Djilobodji and Chalobah will all probably be sent back out on loan (as they wind down their contracts). Both Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Bertrand Traore continue to show promise in advanced attacking roles but will likely stay on the fringes, especially with Conte rumoured to be after another striker. Arguably the only young player with a chance of breaking through this season is Ola Aina, who, whilst admittedly impressive may find himself more with chances due to a lack of top competition at full back, as opposed to his respective merits over his peers in the U21 squad.
Of the other young players at the club, I would say only three still have a decent chance of building a successful career at Chelsea, and all three have already bent sent back out on loan. Nathan Ake has another opportunity to impress (most likely at centre half) under Eddie Howe at Bournemouth this year; Charly Musonda is set to be the star man for Real Betis in La Liga whilst Andreas Christensen will be looking to step straight in the first team next season, after another good year at Borussia in Germany.
I think by now we’ve all read the reports in The Telegraph and The Mirror that Conte has asked Abramovich for at least four (maybe five) new signings. The reports didn’t go into to detail but I imagine specifically he wants a new striker, two new defenders and a replacement for Asmir Begovic (if he decides to leave).
I’m undecided about the reasonableness of this demand, although I’m inclined to defer to Conte’s judgement. In my opinion though the fees being quoted for our striking targets (£70m for Morata, £60m for Lukaku) are ridiculous. That we’re even considering them frustrates me. With a striker he reportedly rates in Costa, a new signing in Michy, a talent like Ruben whom he sees in that role and reserves of the quality of Remy and Traore, these deals represent profound wastes of money to me.
Otherwise defensive reinforcements are plainly necessary. I wish these stupid stories about Leo Bonucci and Kostas Manolas would stop and we would start pursuing feasible targets. I think Benfica’s young Swedish defender Victor Lindelof would be a good investment, his strength and calmness are both impressive for his age, I think he’d suit the Premier League. Valencia’s Shkrodan Mustafi would be another good signing, for his aggressiveness and versatility. After Dani Carvajal won back his place for Real Madrid, a bid for Danilo da Silva might not be a terrible idea either.
The amount of money being thrown around this summer is extraordinary. As much as it is important to be ambitious and competitive in the market I think it’s also important to be smart and considered and not be pressured into spending huge amounts just because your rivals are doing so. The millions spent by the Manchester clubs in recent seasons to little avail, and the success of Leicester on a relatively tiny budget has proven the virtues of quality coaching and teamwork over exorbitant spending.
There is an increasing sense on social media that Chelsea are doomed to another mediocre season unless they spend big in the next few weeks; I don’t think this is the case. And I don’t think it’s a very helpful mind set. The new TV deals mean we can’t simply out spend other clubs now and so we need to play to our other strengths i.e. the potential of the young players on our roster and having Conte, one of the best coaches in the world.
The pre-season tour continues as the squad fly out to the US this afternoon. Hopefully I’ll have time to share more thoughts soon. Share yours in the comments section below. Lots to discuss/debate at the moment