It was a record breaking season for Antonio Conte’s Chelsea in 2016/17, but barely 2 months have passed since Chelsea won their 6th English Premier League title, and yet the club are still waiting to see if their Italian manager will sign an extension to his current 3 year deal. Chelsea’s campaign was a largely textbook execution of brilliance, in which Conte masterminded a superb 13 game winning streak, following a critical tactical shift after back to back defeats against Arsenal and Liverpool in September.
Immediately following their title win, Conte already made it clear that his ambitions were for Chelsea to consolidate their winning status by defending their title and compete for the Champions League, in particular. Given that the squad was relatively compact this season (only 14 players made 20 appearances or more), it’s fair to expect that the Blues will be keen to reinforce ahead of the 2017/18, especially with the increased demands of European football, the lack of which likely helped in keeping the team fresh and well rotated during the past season.
Areas of Concern
On paper, Chelsea’s weaknesses appear few and far between. A record breaking 30 wins in 38 Premier League games is a clear indication of their winning prowess, but the key to that record, especially in the season’s 2nd quarter, was their ability to concede few goals, infrequently. The Blues kept 16 clean sheets, and conceded only once in 13 of their 38 games, ensuring that, unlike some of their more illustrious rivals, 2 goals was sufficient to ensure 3 points in the majority of those 29 games. Chelsea scored the most goals from set pieces in the league (25), offering a viable alternative to opening up stubborn, deep set defences. The team also managed to share the goals extensively across the squad, with 8 players contributing 5 goals or more. The contribution of the rotated players was invaluable as well, particularly Cesc Fabregas who topped the team with 12 assists despite only 13 starts for the entire season.
The main challenges facing Chelsea largely relate to maintaining their high standards, and extending the team’s depth in key areas. Chelsea’s layer of players beneath the core of 14 players feels largely thin, and is dominated by a number of talented young prospects who’ve yet to fully establish themselves due to a lack of consistent opportunities. It’s likely that players like of Kurt Zouma, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Nathan Ake and Nathaniel Chalobah may either remain as backup players at the club, find themselves on the loan circuit once again, or even on their way from Stamford Bridge. Instead, it’s likely that Chelsea would be keen on bringing in experienced players, or established talents ready to maintain to higher levels of performance, much like how N’Golo Kante repeated his strong showing from Leicester to Chelsea blue. It may be more likely that Conte seeks to bring in players that elevate the first XI to new heights, and relegate surprise starters like Victor Moses to the bench.
While there appears to be no firm impressions of Chelsea departures, the rumours have been circling around a few players. The most notable is Diego Costa, whose future remains unclear. Conte has allegedly indicated to Costa that the Spaniard has no future at Chelsea, and Costa’s presumed preferred destination of Atletico Madrid is closed while they see out their recent transfer ban. It’s far more likely that a move is pending for centre back Kurt Zouma, who despite a lack of appearances, is still highly regarded and has been linked recently with a return to France with either Nice or Lyon. Bournemouth appear determined to secure the return of Nathan Ake, who had an impressive loan spell with the Cherries in the past season, but barely featured following a recall from his loan towards the latter third of the campaign.
Arguably the most intriguing potential departure lies in midfield, where it appears that the futures of Cesc Fabregas and Nemanja Matic appear intertwined with each other. Reportedly, Conte is very keen to retain the services of the Spaniard, whose abilities in both creative and game control respects appear to be the more preferable to retain. The Serbian, by comparison, has struggled to reach the same performance levels as achieved when he arrived in 2014. Matic may well be keen on the stories that have emerged in recent weeks linking him to Manchester United and a reunion with former boss Jose Mourinho.
While it’s largely common for media outlets to link clubs of Chelsea’s ilk to many players, a great deal of those links tend to be fairly tenuous. There have been some fairly consistent threads though, and one that appears to be gaining pace rapidly is that of Monaco midfielder Tiemoue Bakayoko. The French midfielder’s combative style, defensive prowess and powerful dribbling from deep lying positions offers an alternative to Kante, variety to Fabregas and a meaningful replacement for Matic.
While Marcos Alonso played well for Chelsea at left wing-back, another link that appears to be gaining favour is that of Brazilian Alex Sandro of Juventus. Sandro is widely regarded as one of the best in his position in the world, and while the Serie A champions are keen to retain him, it’s been reported that Chelsea are willing to pay substantially for his services.
Where the links become more difficult to discern is at centre forward, where the most tangible link appears to be that of former Chelsea prospect Romelu Lukaku. The Belgian’s improved showing at Everton this past campaign has drawn considerable admiration, and even though the player has expressed impatience with the ongoing speculation about his future, the rumour mill has persisted in linking him with a return to the blue dressings of Stamford Bridge. It remains to be seen if his physicality and ability to dominate defenders will be the preferred foil for a possible replacement to Diego Costa, should the latter move on.