Can Chelsea Catch Up and Compete for the Title?
Arsenal are not the only members of the London elite who are starting 2018/19 with a new manager but, unlike Arsenal, at Chelsea a new face in the dugout is hardly a rare occurrence.
Roman Abramovich has built a reputation for appointing managers who win The Blues a title in their first season but then struggle in their second, partly down to receiving limited financial backing from the owner. This cycle continued in the Antonio Conte era, with the Italian winning the big prize in 2016/17 but then cutting a disconsolate, forlorn figure for much of last season as his side found consistency elusive.
Confusion and uncertainty reigned over Stamford Bridge for most of the summer, but the logjam was finally broken in early July when Conte was fired, and ex-Napoli boss Maurizio Sarri appointed to the Stamford Bridge hot seat.
The New Man
So, what should Chelsea fans expect from their new manager? Is he capable of keeping up the Abramovich tradition of winning a title in season one? Well, if he is to achieve it – a big if with Man City looking stronger than ever – then he will have to do it the hard way, with this being his first managerial appointment outside of his native Italy.
What will change for Chelsea fans this season will be the shape of their side. After a bit of experimentation with a back-four, Conte eventually plumped for a back three with advanced wing-backs, in the form of Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses, and it brought them considerable success. But this will change.
At Napoli, Sarri used 4-3-3 formation, with two full-backs being asked to push on wherever possible and had a midfield that was generally made up of one defensive-minded player, one box-to-boxer, and one with attacking intent. Crucially, his front three was made up of creative players who played with fluidity and intelligence. And it was a formation with which he had considerable success and came within a whisker of breaking Juve’s vice-like grip on the Scudetto. He is, however, awaiting the first trophy of his managerial career, something he’ll be hoping to achieve in west London. The early signs, based on Chelsea’s early pre-season friendlies, are that he will stick with a 4-3-3.
One difficulty he has to overcome – one shared with varying degrees with his fellow top six managers – is how to manage his squad over the first few weeks of the season, with many key players still not back in training due to their World Cup commitments. There is clearly a smart juggling act to be performed over pre-season in getting the squad as prepared as possible for the early season skirmishes and then to try and seamlessly integrate the returning internationals.
Ins & Outs
Other than the new manager, the only significant signing at the time of writing is Jorginho, who followed his manager over from Napoli. The Brazilian-born Italian international will offer the Blues something they haven’t had for a few seasons: a holding midfielder who, as well as offering a defensive shield, can instigate and dictate play. N’Golo Kante does the defensive side of the job brilliantly but is limited from a creative point of view, but the pair in tandem will offer Chelsea a different dynamic from the centre of the park. This, of course, assumes that Kante is staying at the Bridge and it’s no secret that he is in the sights of Juventus.
The only other arrival to date – a surprising one – is veteran English keeper Rob Green, who initially arrives as third-choice keeper behind Thibaut Courtois and Willy Caballero, although rumours continue of Real Madrid lining up a deal for Belgium’s number one. The counter-rumour to this one – this is the ‘silly season’ after all – is that Chelsea are ‘interested’ in Leicester’s Kasper Schmeichel.
While it may change shape this season, Chelsea’s defence is the one area that only needs limited changes. In addition to the vastly experienced Cesar Azpilicueta and Gary Cahill, the emergence of both Andreas Christensen and Antonio Rudiger mean the Blues are well covered at centre-back, although it is well known that Sarri wants to bring in Daniele Rugani from Juventus. At the time of writing the Blues are reported to be close to signing the 23-year-old, for a fee of around £40 million.
A new right-back is also a distinct possibility. With Victor Moses far more suited to a wing-back role as opposed to that of a traditional right-back, it’s conceivable that Sarri will be looking for cover in this area, with Elseid Hysaj another Napoli player rumoured to be following Sarri to London.
Interestingly, despite the interest from Juve, Kante is perfectly suited to Sarri’s system as the high-energy defensive shield who links defence and attack. While not renowned as a passer, this aspect of his game improved under Conte and will improve further still alongside Jorginho. Other options available to Sarri in the more advanced midfield roles are Tiemoue Bakayoko – who to date has struggled to hold down a regular place – and fresh from his successful World Cup exploits, Ruben Loftus-Cheek.
The England star has admitted he may have to leave Stamford Bridge to continue his football education but showed enough in Russia to suggest he should be given a chance to impress at Chelsea. If he stays, he’ll find himself in competition with Ross Barkley – another who has shown in an England shirt that he has the ability to cut it at the highest level if fully fit and in form – and of course the vastly experienced Cesc Fabregas.
Up front is where it gets tricky for Sarri. While Eden Hazard would be a shoo-in for the left-sided berth, there remains a big question mark over his appetite for staying at Stamford Bridge. The smart money is on Real Madrid using cash from the sale of Cristiano Ronaldo to lure him to the Bernabeu, which would leave Alvaro Morato, World Cup winner Olivier Giroud, Willian, and Pedro. This is further complicated by Willian also expressing a desire to depart Stamford Bridge.
Juve’s Gonzalo Higuain is one reported to be on Sarri’s shopping list, but with the uncertainty around the futures of Hazard, Willian and, possibly, Morato, there are almost certain to be new arrivals in the striking department.
Long gone are the days when Chelsea, thanks to the Abramovich millions, would be installed as favourites or joint-favourites to win the Premier League, and this season they are pitched as fourth-favourites at 12/1 .
Like Arsenal, they will hope to benefit from a new manager bounce – and after Leicester’s title win anything seems possible – but the gap between Chelsea and Man City appears bigger now than ever. If Hazard does depart west London, as seems likely, their creative edge will be considerably blunted and Sarri will need to act smartly in the transfer market.
Chelsea to achieve 80 or more Premier League points – 10/3 with BetVictor
Chelsea to finish higher than Liverpool – 7/4 with BetVictor
- Premier League