Imagine being an editor and tasking a Liverpool supporter of 20 years to do a Chelsea preview. Yes, my colleagues would point out predictably (and unimaginatively), that we haven’t won the league since my inception, and I’d have gladly crawled back in if I thought I’d see the day when I’d be given this assignment. I take no pleasure in being unbiased when it comes to your dear club, dear reader, but since duty calls, I must reluctantly down my pitchfork, tar and feathers, and up my tools.
Defending champions, Chelsea, flattered to deceive. Jose Mourinho’s follow-up script after the title-winning high was a Greek tragedy. It had it all – an uprising, collective back-stabbing from his perceived underlings, the role of a pantomime villain losing the plot, a damsel in distress (read: the physio, Eva), a comedy of errors, existentialism, denial, delusion, bitter words and vitriol and the inevitable trap-door exit.
A season that started on such a high, saw them finish in ignominy and embarrassment and in 10th.
Chelsea have hired the best possible man for the job to cull the collective ego and the deadwood, Antonio Conte. So, far, 16 players have been shipped elsewhere, while two have come in. Signalling perhaps an end to Chelsea’s abjectly-decadent stockpiling policy, with the advent of the no-nonsense Italian.
Chiselled jawline, eyes that burn through your soul, a barking voice you can hear from the upper tier, and with a wide-shouldered build of a MMA fighter – he’s one man you wouldn’t dare cross. I’m not even counting in the fact that he’s a hot-blooded Italian from Lecce.
Leadership, tenacity, graft and all the working-class-footballer associated clichéd attributes you can think of – he had it in his time at Juventus; captaining the side as one their most influential and successful players in history. All those qualities have permeated through his formative years in management. Conte demands success and a bare minimum of 110%.
Any inkling of the lily-livered lollygagging of the previous season will be met with righteous fury and ejection – as Conte, strict disciplinarian has next to no patience for the frivolity of footballers. Cobham, many of last years’ miscreants will feel, will turn into a purgatory.
Conte signature style will bring about a change of direction and intent in Chelsea’s historically insular approach to attack. The one striker fulcrum will be scrapped in favour for a two-pronged approach, employing Batshuayi paired with perhaps a new recruit as Diego Costa’s days at the club seem numbered.
With the guaranteed change upfront, this poses a critically curious question of whether Conte would employ the diamond. The formation on paper would typically bring the best out of Eden Hazard as the tip of the midfield attacking four, with midfield levee N’Golo Kante doing his best Makelele impression. The other two central midfield slots are up for grabs. Willian’s graft as a utility man should see him book one of those berths, while it remains to be seen which one of Oscar, Fabregas and Matic finds his way into the good books of Conte.
In defence, Conte will look to phase out the battle-worn John Terry. Despite the returning from injury Kurt Zouma bolstering his defence, Conte is looking to shore up than be sorry, moving for Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly. Azpilicueta looks to be a certain starter, while Ivanovic needs to start from square one, with his form and motivation abandoning him the past season. Ola Aina may make the step-up to usurp Ivanovic and Kenedy or Cuevas may get a fair crack of the whip on the left-hand side when Azpilicueta is played on the right, considering Conte’s preference to wing-backs.
Predicted Finish – 3rd
All things considered, if Conte’s meticulous, military methods can straighten up the slackers from last season, and instil confidence in those in need in the squad, the Premier League may see a well-oiled machine churning out fighting results week in week out. But with so many players misfiring last season, and an utter lack of on-field chemistry, cohesion and charisma, Conte has his work cut out for him, getting them all to click and in quick time.
A look around the league, Manchester City, Liverpool seem better placed to finish above Chelsea this season. It may be a three-way brawl between Manchester United, Arsenal and themselves for the remaining two Champions League slots – with Conte having the sufficient shrewdness to compensate for a lack of Premier League know-how, to come out on top.