Disappointingly, the lasting sentiment from this pre-season period, is that after a promising start, things haven’t panned out quite as auspiciously as we’d hoped. After positive early signs from our initial training camp in Austria, the signings of Michy Batshuayi and N’Golo Kante, followed by a defensively solid performance against Liverpool in the States, things were looking good. But a subsequent two week period of no further signings, and a handful of matches marred by a real shakiness/sloppiness in defence, hopes of a quick turnaround aren’t as well founded as we hoped they would ahead of our first competitive fixture.
Helpfully, our last match against Werder Bremen summed up the current position of our squad, and their prospects quite nicely. What’s evident is that Antonio Conte’s preparations have the side in great shape. He has got key individuals in attack looking sharp and has more or less established the basics of a system that looks to serve each of their talents accordingly. All three first half goals (Hazard cutting in sharply from the right wing; Oscar playing deft touches in the penalty area and Costa timing his run to slot home coolly from an angle) were all trademark finishes and were evidence of an front line in good form.
The game also however demonstrated our obvious weaknesses. Slopping passing in the middle third of the pitch from wide positions conceded far too many soft chances. Cahill and Terry, when ran at with (even fairly mild) pace were caught too square more often than not, whilst Ivanovic, though more assured than normal, holding a deeper position, was still a plain target when isolated on the right. Nemanja Matic played some good passes and made a handful of strong tackles but always managed to be where he wasn’t needed whenever Werder had possession in key areas.
It’s a fairly inescapable fact – this defence is not good enough to win the Premier League. The first choice back four has problems, while the rest of the roster is made up of Kurt Zouma (who may still be months off a return) and Ola Aina and Michael Hector (who haven’t a league appearance between them). Two signings are necessary. This is an assessment so bleeding blaringly obvious that the inability of the club to have acted by now has left fans understandably frustrated and deflated as the season approaches.
To finish top of the league after such a poor season may still realistically be beyond the reasonable expectations of anyone at this stage, but it feels as though everything is in place to make a strong challenge. We have the attacking talent; we have an elite coach in the prime of his career; if Oscar and Matic find form we have as strong a roster of central midfielders in the division and in Eden Hazard we have one of four players in the country good enough to reliably win matches single-handedly during tough spells. What we haven’t got is the defence. For the first time in a very long time the backline is the clear weakness in the squad, and it’s the reason why victory on Monday is far from being guaranteed…
West Ham represent a tough opening game for Conte. The irons took four points from us last season, are in good shape after a long pre-season (with Europa League qualifiers) and, in general, are a club in the ascendency, after a very promising first season under Slaven Bilic, and with the move to their new stadium. They’re a club with a lot going for them at the moment. (Although, on a side note, as Jason Cundy pointed out in commentary – that they’ve renamed The Olympic Stadium, The London Stadium is ridiculous, and boring, and rather inappropriate, one might suggest also, for the City’s fourth biggest team. Anyway…)
West Ham might be the fitter of the two sides but they’re disadvantaged by missing half of their first choice back line, with both Angelo Ogbonna and Aaron Cresswell injured. Manuel Lanzini, one of the underrated signings of last season, is unavailable also. Andre Ayew looks set to complete a big move from Swansea City and form a dangerous wing partnership with Dmitri Payet but probably won’t be available by Monday. West Ham should have high aspirations this season but they may still see this fixture as one where they have relatively little to lose, a potentially a great start to gain by attacking Chelsea hard. New signing Sofiane Feghouli may start in an attacking midfield formation ahead of the more defensive Pedro Obiang. With Cresswell out, youngster Lewis Page is the only other natural left back in the team and he may be a target for Willian to attack.
Given our struggles to contain sides, I don’t see how Conte has a choice but to start with three midfielders. I’m early fan of Michy, but the advantages he provides up front, for now, clearly don’t compensate for the extra room left playing only two in midfield. Some have campaigned for Aina to start at right back but his performances against Milan and Madrid suggested he is someway off being ready for a regular first team spot. Therefore the only interesting selection decision is whether to start Oscar or Fabregas. The Brazilian looks in good nick with three goals in the last two warm-up games. He is more mobile than Cesc also and can maintain a more aggressive press higher up the pitch to begin with. For the last three years he has performed well in the opening fixture also. I think he’ll get the nod.
Prediction: Whilst I want to be optimistic, it’s difficult not to see us conceding a handful of decent chances and most likely, at least one goal. Especially if we concede first I can’t see us taking more than a draw. A quick start, as against Werder, will be crucial, and hopefully we’ll be able to focus on turning in a defensive performance similar to that against Liverpool in California, pressing hard but still fairly deep and playing the ball out wide quickly. Whatever happens, reinforcements are needed, but a positive result and in particular a strong defensive performance would go a long way to restoring the faith drained by a frustrating final two weeks to pre-season prep.
Enjoy the game!