Chelsea’s season is happening in reverse from last year. Great start, growing into games, then a slight falter, and a capitulation. Last year was meant to be the one-off, and this year was meant to be the start of a brand new era; new ego at the helm, new faces across the pitch, new stadium on the horizon (well, in the same place).
Hiring Antonio Conte was just the first step in the right direction, and many thought it was a bigger step than it actually was. Conte is a fantastic manager; like Mourinho, he’s a born winner with a temper, flair on the sidelines and he prides himself on organising the defence and building from the back. He’s quick, has the intelligence to turn games from the sidelines and he’s the energy that Chelsea need in the technical area. But he’s finding out two things now he’s actually managing in England. Firstly, this league is a step above Serie A: no shame in that, especially as Chelsea have won the games they’re expected to have won, and only dropped all three points against Liverpool and Arsenal. The second is perhaps more worrying: has he overestimated this Chelsea team?
Chelsea’s most recent success was built upon the manager identifying the weak spots in the side and strengthening accordingly. Say what you like about Mourinho, he has a knack for making signings that instantly improve the team tenfold; Courtois, Fabregas and Costa were all stellar acquisitions to bolster the spine of his last full season at Stamford Bridge, and many assumed Conte would simply do the same, and bring in four top class footballers.
There isn’t much that links each of Chelsea’s four big swoops this summer though. Belgian striker Michy Batshuayi was a strong statement at a time in the window when Arsenal were still searching for a striker; once it remained clear Diego Costa would stay though, Batshuayi became less necessary than expected but a top-quality squad player nonetheless. N’Golo Kanté looked like being the first of many out the Leicester door and seemed like a deal too good to pass up, but his presence alongside Matic in the Chelsea midfield isn’t just keeping out Cesc Fàbregas, it’s stopping the ball moving through midfield. Both were great signings, but felt like the first pieces of a grand new plan, rather the best two they’d make. In a move that stunk of a Football Manager board refusing to part with more cash or allow Antonio to play with the wage budget further though, it took until deadline day for Conte to secure the services of the decent full-back Marcos Alonso, and the much-maligned David Luiz.
The news of Chelsea re-signing of Luiz descended like the slow collapse of a circus tent. The central defence was really where Chelsea really needed new blood, but ironically for a team that shipped out this same player for a ridiculous £50 million, they were priced out of buying better quality alternatives. For some, it’s ruined the club’s transfer window; the glaring holes in the side are still there for all the league to see and slide through-balls past, though Kanté might feel a little more needed in the team now he has a shakier back four to guard.
There wasn’t much choice left for Conte when the call came to re-home the eccentric Brazilian, and now it’s down to the new boss to get the best from the weird cards he helped deal. For a manager who made the most average Italy side for generations a feared force just three months ago, should it really be too difficult on paper? I mean, how bad can the defence be? Though Chelsea look disjointed on the pitch, there’s no doubt that Conte has components to build upon; Wenger, van Gaal and Ranieri have all built sturdy enough defences from seemingly average players to break into the top four, and few of them had attacking options like Hazard and Costa.
The key with Chelsea’s balance this season might just lie in what Conte won the Chelsea faithful’s hearts with, and Marcos Alonso, the lesser detested of Chelsea’s deadline day buys, might just be a vital part of that. The 3-5-2 that Italy employed at Euro 2016 turned an aging group of players into a solid prospect. Barzagli, Bonucci and Chiellini had an average age of 32 but were supported on the flanks by the altogether more energetic Candreva and Darmian. These two wing-backs didn’t just add numbers to the defence, they bombed forward to provide passing options for the midfield, as well as balls into Pellè and Éder. Italian teams are rarely pretty – De Rossi covered that sturdy back three, too – but their efficiency is only ever topped by Germany. It was a team that built on its strength, as the only arguably world class players were at the base of the teamsheet, but it provided good foundation for creativity.
Chelsea’s problem at first glance might not seem like a lack of bodies in defence; the Liverpool game was a case of not just Cahill and Luiz trying to play the ball out, but Kanté and Matic struggling to move out of their own half too. It’s a lack of balance and often positional uncertainty that seems to be hampering the Blues though, and Conte could look to the back three to solve that, as he did against Arsenal in the second half.
Though Chelsea lack an elite defender right now, the combination of Cahill and another centre-back – either Terry or Ivanovic – alongside the ball-playing Luiz might just be enough to snuff out danger. With Matic and/or Kanté covering that, the door opens to Fàbregas and/or Oscar, who thrive on less off-the-ball responsibility and more opportunity to play-make. Willian and/or Hazard then supports Costa and/or Batshuayi, with even more help coming from Azpilicueta and Alonso out wide. It’s currently becoming far too simple to isolate Costa, a striker who only needs a sniff of a chance most of the time, as the defensive midfield either sit too deep to get the ball upfield, or too high and allow chances to get at the fragile central defence. Luiz playing out from Courtois, with cover from two more defenders, would potentially push the midfield further up. The wingbacks would provide much of the pace and work-rate. If it worked, it would give Chelsea the chance to outnumber teams in both defence and midfield, while not asking too much defensively of the attackers.
When it’s put like that, it seems like a daft idea to just throw more bodies into the weakest area of the pitch – perhaps that’s why Conte’s avoided doing so thus far – and obviously the 2016 versions of Terry, Cahill and Luiz are shadows of the Italian masters that Conte managed over the summer. But Chelsea have proved on numerous occasions that their best players operate well when given freer roles up the pitch; Azpilizueta and Alonso are good passers of the ball as well as defenders, and everywhere-at-once Kanté can still bomb back and forth to influence both sides of the pitch. While Conte’s Chelsea aren’t as solid as Conte’s Italy, they’re a hell of a lot more dynamic going forward. A 3-5-2 doesn’t just benefit the defence, but also the attack, though the centre-backs involved may well feel more comfortable as a trio.
He might not have bought exactly the right players in the summer but this is the kind of conundrum that Chelsea fans expected Antonio Conte to solve at the Bridge. It shouldn’t be impossible to get a little consistency from the talent at his disposal, as he’s got players to perform above their individual levels in the past. He doesn’t know the league yet. He’s yet to get a good run of form together and inspire a rush of confidence in his team. It’ll come, but for now Conte might be best off sticking with what he knows.