Premier League Preview: Chelsea

Chelsea were simply brilliant in 2016-17, as the Blues stormed to their second Premier League title in three seasons, winning a record 30 league games along the way. Once Antonio Conte implemented his three at the back defensive system, Chelsea were just about unstoppable. They closed the 2016 calendar year with a record-tying 13 consecutive top flight victories, and they led the trailing pack by double digits for most of 2017 before Tottenham closed the gap late. However, the season ended on a sour note for Chelsea with a 2-1 loss to Arsenal in the FA Cup. They suffered a similar fate in Sunday’s FA Community Shield – Arsenal lifted the preseason silverware with a 4-1 win on penalties following a 1-1 draw that saw the Gunners equalize late after Pedro had been sent off. Might there be some cracks in Chelsea’s armor that could cause them problems this year?

On paper, Chelsea are even better than last season. But there’s a bunch of uncertainty around some key positions. Diego Costa, the volatile and often poorly behaved center forward, is still a Chelsea player, even though Conte essentially broke up with him via text earlier this summer. (That’s a middle school move, Antonio.) Álvaro Morata was brought in from Real Madrid to replace Costa, but only after Romelu Lukaku slipped through Chelsea’s fingers to Manchester United. Conte has been bemoaning Morata’s fitness and learning curve in preseason. Cesc Fàbregas, once hated but now beloved by Chelsea supporters, was really instrumental in helping the Blues cross the finish line first last season. The Spanish playmaker wants to play more. Given his performances last season, he should play more. But will he? N’Golo Kanté, the reigning PFA Player of the Year, and new signing Tiemoué Bakayoko will have a stranglehold on central midfield, which doesn’t leave room for another central middie in Conte’s 3-4-3 system. The Fàbregas situation is one to monitor while the summer window is open. More questions can be asked of Chelsea’s defense: can Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso repeat their brilliant form as wing backs? Is David Luiz good again? How many own goals will Gary Cahill score? Where does Antonio Rüdiger fit into the back three?

There’s lots of questions for a side that just won the league three short months ago. Chelsea will also have to factor in midweek, European games this season, as the Champions League returns to Stamford Bridge after a one-year hiatus.

2016-17 Record & Finish
30-3-5 (W-D-L), 93 points, Premier League champions
+52 GD (85 GF, 33 GA)

Manager
Antonio Conte – 2nd season with Chelsea

conte

Ins and Outs
Tiemoué Bakayoko (£36 million from AS Monaco)
Willy Caballero (free from Manchester City)
Álvaro Morata (£58.5 million from Real Madrid)
Antonio Rüdiger (£31.5 million from AS Roma)

Tammy Abraham (on loan to Swansea City)
Ola Aina (on loan to Hull City)
Nathan Aké (£20.52 million to AFC Bournemouth)
Christian Atsu (£6.75 million to Newcastle United)
Asmir Begovic (£10.35 million to AFC Bournemouth)
Jamal Blackman (on loan to Sheffield United)
Nathaniel Chalobah (£5.67 million to Watford)
Juan Cuadrado (£18 million to Juventus)
Michael Hector (on loan to Hull City)
Tomás Kalas (on loan to Fulham)
Todd Kane (on loan to FC Groningen)
Ruben Loftus-Cheek (on loan to Crystal Palace)
Nemanja Matic (£40.23 million to Manchester United)
Matt Miazga (on loan to Vitesse)
Danilo Pantic (on loan to FK Partizan Belgrade)
Mario Pasalic (on loan to Spartak Moscow)
John Terry (free to Aston Villa)
Bertrand Traoré (£9 million to Olympique Lyonnais)
Kurt Zouma (on loan to Stoke City)

X-factor
Cesc Fàbregas

cesc.jpeg

After hardly seeing the field during the first half of Chelsea’s title-winning 2016-17 season, Cesc Fàbregas was one of the Blues’ most important contributors down the stretch. The former Arsenal man made 29 league appearances – only 13 of them starts – yet still managed to net five goals and 12 assists. Conte preferred to use Fàbregas with N’Golo Kanté in central midfield when he knew Chelsea would have the majority of possession. With Nemanja Matic gone and Bakayoko brought in to be Kanté’s new partner, Fàbregas may struggle once again to get into Chelsea’s starting 11 regularly. For a team that won’t find it as easy to score 85 goals again this season, Fàbregas can be the creative playmaker who can unlock stubborn Premier League defenses.

Best Case Scenario
Back-to-back Premier League titles, the first club to repeat as English champions this decade. Chelsea’s 3-4-3 system continues to suit their personnel. Morata slots in nicely up front and bags plenty of goals. Eden Hazard, Pedro, and Willian score their fair share and provide plenty of chances for the other attacking players as well. Fàbregas gets into the team regularly and continues to pull the strings in midfield, especially in games where Chelsea see a lot of the ball. The Blues manage to get Diego Costa out the door this month, which would be best for all parties involved. Chelsea will be the last English team standing in the Champions League, perhaps making it all the way to the semifinals. They’ll be out for revenge in the FA Cup, and if Chelsea make it back to Wembley for another cup final, don’t expect them to lose it again.

Worst Case Scenario
Chelsea are unable to get rid of Diego Costa, but Conte refuses to play him, leading to lots of grumbling and unrest behind the scenes. The defense – both wing backs and the three center backs – sees its collective performance drop this season. Can we really expect Alonso and Moses to thrive like they did in 2016-17? Luiz was up for most of last season, but he’s been all over the map, up and down, the last several seasons. If Morata misses any significant time, where are the goals going to come from? Hazard will score some; and Pedro and Willian will pitch in from the wings, but I haven’t seen enough of Michy Batshuayi to know whether or not he’s a legitimate Premier League striker. Either way, it was his goal at West Brom that clinched the title for Chelsea on May 5th.

If Chelsea stumble a bit in the opening months, which is entirely possible given their early schedule, will Conte’s methods and incessant bellowing from the touchline start to work against him? Will he still be at charge in London this time next year? If things start to go badly, they could spiral pretty quickly at Stamford Bridge. The Blues won’t drop from first to tenth again, but could they tumble out of the top four? Absolutely. Will they? I don’t see them finishing any lower than fourth.

If I were in charge for a day…
I would find a way to get Willian and Fàbregas in the team more often. Willian suits Chelsea’s style perfectly, with his blinding pace on the counter attack and his excellent delivery on free kicks. Fàbregas offers some extra creativity to help break down stubborn defensive-minded teams. They will be that much more important this season with Chelsea competing in Europe in addition to their domestic obligations. I wouldn’t necessarily change Conte’s 3-4-3 system – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But for a squad that doesn’t have a ton of depth, it’s important to get all of your best players out there as often as possible. Both Willian and Cesc were underused in 2016-17, and it’s time to change that.

 

Chelsea begin their title defense in four days’ time at Stamford Bridge. It’s not an easy start to the season for Conte’s men, which should make it that much more fun to watch. Here’s the initial run of games for Chelsea in 2017:

Aug. 12 – vs. Burnley
Aug. 20 – at Spurs
Aug. 27 – vs. Everton
Sept. 9 – at Leicester
Sept. 17 – vs. Arsenal
Sept. 23 – at Stoke
Sept. 30 – vs. Manchester City

Tomorrow I’ll reveal my predictions for the 2017-18 Premier League season: final standings, cup winners, player and manager awards, and much more!

As always, thanks for reading. Come on you Reds!

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