At times in football, as in life, you can be caught off guard. When you least expect it, something totally unforeseen happens, fate takes hold and dramatically changes the direction of the path you are on.
Almost a year ago to the day and on the eve of a new season, Chelsea were champions of England, Jose Mourinho was settled at the club and the ink was just drying on his new four-year contract. The words of club director Marina Granovskaia delightedly announcing four more years of Mourinho and the promise of continued success were ringing in the ears of supporters around Stamford Bridge. Fans were eagerly anticipating another era of west London dominance.
By the time Mourinho was sacked on 17th December 2015, Dr Eva Carneiro had left the club following a public row with the then-manager and the Blues were just one point above the relegation zone having lost nine of their opening sixteen league fixtures. By the end of the season, Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge fortress barely resembled a sandcastle.
The previous season’s home record of zero defeats and just nine goals against was replaced by five losses and 30 conceded. 2014/15 PFA Player of the Year, Eden Hazard, was a shell of his former self, as was chief marksman, Diego Costa, and the assist-making magic in the boots of Cesc Fabregas had long deserted him.
Their tenth-placed finish saw Chelsea miss out on European qualification for the first time in the Roman Abramovich era.
2016/17 Chelsea Season Preview
Conte Era Begins
Fast forward to mid-August 2017 and the landscape has certainly changed. Incoming Italian boss, Antonio Conte, arrives having led his country through a successful Euro 2016 tournament in France; the championships allowing many Chelsea fans a first glimpse of Conte at work.
Conte’s attention to detail and the tactical preparation of his teams is akin to the successful approach shown by Mourinho in his first spell at Chelsea.
In his book, I Think Therefore I Play, Andrea Pirlo best describes Conte’s drive to succeed. He tells the story of Conte arriving at Juventus and addressing the players during a pre-season training sesson.
“Lads, we’ve finished seventh in the last two years. Crazy stuff, absolutely appalling. I’ve not come here for that. It’s time we stopped being cr*p. Turning around this ship is not a polite request; it’s an order, a moral obligation.”
Conte’s drive to win and to improve the team could be the shot in the arm needed for a squad that looked so bereft of ideas and direction last year.
The players will need to buy into his methods and expect plenty of tactical sessions without a ball. Much of Conte’s ethos is about preparing his players for game situations and the additional training time he will be afforded due to Chelsea’s lack of involvement in European competition will be beneficial.
A positive of last year was the emergence of Ruben Loftus-Cheek. The midfielder was given precious game time by interim manager Guus Hiddink and although he is still a raw talent, he is under the right manager to improve.
Observations on Loftus-Cheek last year centred on his ability with the ball and the effortless nature in which he seemed to glide across the pitch. In much the same way Michael Ballack used to appear in the right place at the right time, Loftus-Cheek has many of the same qualities. Working with Conte, a former midfield general during his playing days for Juventus, will be a great opportunity for a player who does need to improve on tactical discipline and positioning.
Pre-season recruitment has been positive with Chelsea signing Belgian striker Michy Batshuayi from Marseille and French midfielder N’Golo Kante from Leicester City.
The signing of Kante has especially delighted fans and there have been many quick to compare him with the legendary Claude Makelele. Kante’s quality and athleticism will make him a welcome addition in the midfield engine room. His new teammates will have watched from afar as he was one of the key difference makers that drove Leicester City to last year’s sensational title win.
There is still a desire for the club to sign another striker, Romelu Lukaku is continually linked with a return to the club, and the left-back position also looks light as Baba Rahman has returned to Germany on loan at FC Schalke 04.
Fast Start Needed
A fast start is certainly required as their rivals for a top four place have also made progress in the close season. By the time Chelsea face Liverpool and Arsenal back-to-back at the end of September, they will have already played four potentially winnable fixtures against West Ham United, Watford, Burnley and Swansea City.
The attitude of the players who feature less often will be the key to squad harmony. In the past, player power has been cited as a reason behind many managers’ downfall, as word leaks out from the leafy Cobham training base about poor training sessions and bust-ups between teammates. Captain John Terry holds a lot of sway within the dressing room, and his role as the symbolic leader of the club is something Conte will need to tap into.
The soap opera that became the PR war over Terry’s contract renewal highlighted that the club viewed his role at the club changing. It is anticipated that although continuing to play, his status as a key player will be reduced. The expectation is that Terry assumes more responsibilities as a positive role model, in a professional sense, for the youth players; someone who knows how to conduct himself in training and be a positive influence on those around him.
The real test of these qualities will come if Terry does start to play fewer games when Kurt Zouma returns from his cruciate ligament injury.
When asked about Terry, Conte told BBC Sport, “in every team there are some players with great experience, and this experience counts, if you play but also if you don’t play. John is a good example during the training sessions. He has the right attitude and the right behaviour.”
The major challenge for Conte is to repair his players’ self-belief. The mental fragility seen last season is in stark contrast to the strong willed Chelsea teams of recent history. Many in the squad are serial winners with careers built on sustained success. Individually and collectively they must rediscover their hunger and desire in order to challenge for trophies this year and ensure they are in the Champions League next season.