Chelsea had a middling 2015-16 season to put it very mildly. The incumbent champions leapt from one crisis to another both on and off the field and finished the season in the 10th place, which was unthinkable when the season began. The tone of the season, however, was set in the early days with the club playing an uninspiring brand of football and the manager (Jose Mourinho) getting into a distasteful controversy with the team doctor.
The appointment of Antonio Conte as the new man in the helm for this season was good news for the fans. Here was a man who in charge of Juventus and Italy had shown good tactical nous coupled with a strict disciplinarian approach. While that makes him similar to Mourinho, the area of dissimilarity was the lack of controversy with Conte. Chelsea were getting a new manager who had the good traits of the “Special One”, minus the baggage. The summer transfer window till date has helped to shore up some of the cracks in the squad, with N’Golo Kante slotting in the engine room of the midfield and Michy Batshuayi providing an able substitute striker for Diego Costa.
While the transfer window is still not shut, the early results in the Premiership have been somewhat promising for the team. Two come from behind victories against West Ham and Watford, and a decisive 3-0 triumph over Burnley last Saturday have calmed the nerves of the supporters and have laid down the marker for Chelsea’s title aspirations.
One major concern has been the area of defence with Chelsea only having five defenders in their squad – the foursome of Terry, Cahill, Ivanovic and Azpilicueta and the youngster in Ola Aina. The center of the defence looks shorn of pace and there are no ball playing defenders who can start moves from the deep defence. On the right-back, Ivanovic was disastrous in the previous season and his lack of game reading in that position is apparent this term too. Azpilicueta has been in good touch and has made the left back position a fortress for the Blues.
Two major areas that lend to worries about the defence: the glaring lack of defensive cover in case of injuries, and inadequate protection against quick attackers working the channels and nippy left wingers cutting inside to create waves of attack. Conte proved himself to be a master of defensive gameplay in his earlier stints, and with transfer targets like Kalidou Koulibaly, Nikola Maksimovic or Marcus Alonso it looks like his primary concern is to improve the defence, but questions still remain whether he would be able to create a much grittier unit in a short time.
The midfield looks solid with Kante and Matic providing a solid base – Kante particularly seems to be reprising his role with Leicester which is a Makelele kind of a role with vastly improved attacking gameplay. Matic has recovered substantially from the car wreck of a midfielder last season. The attacking half of the midfield has started off in good nick – both Oscar and Willian look composed and comfortable in transitioning from defence to attack and also pressing the opposition at their halves. Cesc Fabregas has made most of the limited opportunities he has got – though it remains to be seen how Conte finds a place for him in the starting eleven. He remains the imperious passer, and with shifting preferences of the squad, might get more regular chances. On the flanks, Pedro and Victor Moses have been solid while attacking. Although not world beaters on their day, this is an improvement over last season and provides alternate tactical opportunities.
In attack, Diego Costa has looked in good touch in all 3 games and is regularly getting into the right positions that a striker in form does. His disciplinary problems are out there, but by now it’s considered a part of the package for the fearsome striker and Conte might not want to change too much. Batshuayi has also looked the epitome of the modern striker – strong, speedy and comfortable with the ball even in deeper areas. His age masks his maturity of link-up play with the midfield. Loic Remy has had no chance this season, and would go out on loan to Crystal Palace in all probability. Even with two strikers, the unit looks a healthy one till the winter transfer window.
Finally – the phenomenon called Eden Hazard. He looks like the version of the POTY of 2014-15 and not the flop of 2015-16. His sophisticated attributes of dribbling at speed and precision of shooting at the goal are back at their very best on early evidence. The energy of Kante in deep midfield has also relieved Hazard of the duty to track back while in defence, a part of the game which he doesn’t seem to enjoy at any rate. Hazard is the factor that makes the Chelsea squad competitive when compared to the squad strength of star-studded Manchester giants.
On the balance of things, Chelsea under Conte is a very functional unit with specialists at every position playing their parts and there are no overarching structures like Tiki-Taka or gegenpressing. It’s football at its simplest or however simple as it can be is the era of managerial sophisticates. The defence needs additional resources, the midfield and attack (and goalkeeping too) look settled to mount a title challenge. The Blues clearly are not on par with the Manchester teams in quality on the team sheet but are a very good collective led by one of the best attackers in the world and under the stewardship of a no-nonsense and tactically sound manager. Based on their outings so far and the expectation that weaknesses in defence are mended, the team looks to be a serious contender for the Premiership title.