The fallen aristocrats: Chelsea

Old, new Blues must lift game

Antonio Conte has a reputation for insisting on getting things done his way. But while recruits Michy Batshuayi and N'Golo Kante will boost Chelsea, the boss has to raise the team's confidence and make them mentally tougher.
Antonio Conte has a reputation for insisting on getting things done his way. But while recruits Michy Batshuayi and N'Golo Kante will boost Chelsea, the boss has to raise the team's confidence and make them mentally tougher.PHOTO: REUTERS

Conte needs to get his balance and tactics right to turn them into a 'little war machine'

LONDON • Ever since Roman Abramovich took an interest in them in 2003, Chelsea have been perennial challengers in the English Premier League.

So it was a fascinating season for neutral fans last year, when the Blues imploded so badly that they lost their manager Jose Mourinho, slipped into the relegation zone and eventually finished 10th. It was a rare sputter for the Russian billionaire's club in the past decade.

Equally fascinating, therefore, will be how they plan to rebound this season.

Their new manager, Antonio Conte, has a gleaming record, a shrewd approach to tactics and a maniacal will to win, but it is not yet clear that he has the players to make good on his declared intention to transform Chelsea into a "little war machine".

"Everyone must share the blame for last season, and it is important we create the right spirit in the squad this time around," he said.

Some Blues players appeared on their last legs last season, while others seemed plain lily-livered or had their hearts and minds elsewhere. Conte will have to wring improved performances from at least some of those, or promote from the youth ranks and use the transfer market.

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If he gets it right in a division in which all rivals also appear to have flaws, then Chelsea could conceivably be champions again. If he doesn't, then they could remain estranged from the top four.

Chelsea's two major player recruits, Michy Batshuayi and N'Golo Kante, both look well suited to Conte's forceful style.

One thing that seems certain about Conte's planned formation is that it will include two strikers, as the manager ends Chelsea's long preference for a lone forward as their fulcrum.

The Italian has also hinted that he is open to ending Diego Costa's tetchy relationship with the club, a move that seems in everyone's interests, and that could lead to Batshuayi being partnered by a new arrival - or a returnee if Chelsea prise back Romelu Lukaku from Everton.

POSITIVE ENERGY

Everyone must share the blame for last season, and it is important we create the right spirit in the squad this time around.

ANTONIO CONTE, Chelsea manager, on why the side must bounce back from a mediocre 10th-place finish last season.

Conte would then have to demonstrate his coaching skills by honing the two young Belgians into a consistently deadly strike force; and if he can do likewise with the gifted Bertrand Traore, then Chelsea would have fearsome and very fast attacking options.

Kante, meanwhile, is a little war machine all by himself and will immediately upgrade Chelsea's central midfield. The Frenchman is particularly dynamic when it comes to winning the ball back, which was a persistent failing of Chelsea last season. Who plays alongside him will obviously depend on how Conte aims to protect the defence and supply the attack.

One of the Italian's biggest challenges will be to coax more from Eden Hazard, who has the potential to be better than he was not only during last season's epic slump but also than in the previous campaign.

"I like him in the forward position, and he can be a good solution for us playing as a winger too," said Conte. "To play as a second forward he must improve his shape but he is working and he knows his shape in the same way as the other players."

Pre-season has also suggested that Conte may not, as expected, default to a back three. It was natural to play with three when he coached at Juventus and Italy because there he had three world-class centre-backs. At Chelsea he does not have any, even if playing a back three might be a way of maximising John Terry's lingering qualities.

Even in goal Conte needs to harden his players' resolve, as Thibaut Courtois dropped below the acceptable standard last season and Asmir Begovic is challenging for the starting spot.

Chelsea have the roster of a team that should make the top four every season, but the team have a confidence problem that will either be completely washed clean by the motivation of Conte, or will be multiplied by his brashness.

They should finish higher than 10th this season, but in a season with so much managerial talent at the top, getting back into the top four will be tough for the Blues.

THE GUARDIAN, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 09, 2016, with the headline 'Old, new Blues must lift game'. Print Edition | Subscribe