Chelsea FC: Early Impressions

Chelsea FC: So, the window closed, four fixtures under our belt, and our first international break. A good time to make our first assessment of the new season.

Firstly, the manager, so far so good. Our first two fixtures, he changed the game with his subs, putting two up top on both occasions and reaping the reward. Against West Ham, Batshuayi made the difference, winning a header which resulted in Costa’s goal. Against Watford, Fabregas made the difference, although Batshuayi played his part. Unlike against West Ham, we were disjointed against Watford and it looked like more of the same from last season, until Fabregas came on and started pulling the strings, and producing a world class pass for Costa’s goal.

There’s no point moping about if you’re not in the team, you have to impress when you get your chance, and that’s exactly what our boys have done, all our subs, including Moses and Pedro.

Moses has been a bit of a revelation and been rewarded with two goals, although you feel he’ll never have the quality to cement a first team place. As an impact sub however, and occasional starter, he has everything you want from a winger. He hugs the touchline, he drives at opponents and he puts them on the back foot. Not the most technical, he is nonetheless a direct player and that’s something that’s generally lacking in our team.

He’s the complete opposite of Willian in fact, a certain starter on the right. Willian has far more skill, is the far more refined player, and will help you keep the ball for long periods, as well as give you boundless energy. Where he lets himself down is in cutting edge. For an attacker, you’d expect more goals and assists, though admittedly he did improve in this regard last term. Moses’ game is far more straightforward, but effective nonetheless. He looks confident, Conte has obviously shown faith in him, and it seems to have worked. Moses will have his part to play this term.

Talking of cutting edge, we have to talk about Costa. Two late winners in both our opening games. You can’t knock that, except there is a caveat. Both games he should have been sent off, prior to him scoring. Had he been sent off we would have been bang in trouble, particularly against Watford where we were already a goal down. There is so much work to be done on his discipline and you hope Conte is the man to do it although you wonder if it’s an impossible task. We will see. Certainly the media have got it in for him, scrutinising his every move, and that will only ratchet up the pressure on referees. Sooner or later he’s going to get banned, one would assume. Luckily we seem to have signed good cover in Batshuayi, who has impressed far more than Costa in these opening games, albeit he’s played far less minutes.

Where Costa looks sluggish Batshuayi looks dynamic, where Costa looks ponderous Batshuayi looks sharp. Costa is a fine striker but he’ll need to be on his game if he wants to keep Batshuayi out, and if he does get banned, he may find it hard to get straight back in, unless of course Conte sees potential in playing two up top, something he was prone to do in his other jobs.

Before anyone thinks referees have suddenly gone easy on us, think again. Both opening games we had stonewall penalties denied, something we have got used to at Chelsea. We did eventually get a penalty against West Ham and that was converted by the star of our opening few games, Hazard., who is noticeably tracking back less under Conte and doing his work further up the park, where he can hurt his opponents and where the fans want to see him play. Last season he was totally mismanaged by Mourinho, who ran him into the ground when he clearly had physical issues, and when this didn’t have the desired effect he became an even harder taskmaster. It was noticeable when Hiddink came, and he gave Hazard a six week break, that Hazard came back fit and firing and in a far better mental state. Hazard needed care and understanding, instead all he got was bullying, in my opinion.

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Next up was Bristol Rovers, in the League Cup. In come Begovic, Aina for his debut, and Azpilicueta is moved to the right. Fabregas comes in beside Matic, Pedro and Moses start, and Loftus-Cheek plays up front behind Batshuayi. Out go the spine of our team. Courtois, Terry, Kante and Costa, as well as Oscar, Willian and Hazard. We get through, more comfortably than the scoreline suggests, though the formation and the personnel largely fail their auditions. Terry and Kante particularly are missed and we look vulnerable, whereas we’ve looked solid in our other games, against Premiership opposition. Conte was planning on introducing Chalobah for his debut but instead had to bring on the big-hitters, just to be sure.

Kante has made a difference. He‘s been the only new arrival to start our Premiership games but that one addition has made all the difference, hence the absence of Fabregas. One wonders what’s going to happen to Cesc this season, although of course it’s early days. It’s just difficult to see a place for him in Conte’s first XI. Truth is, nobody has quite worked out Cesc’s best position, is it in front of the back four or further up, nobody quite knows. There’s no doubt he’s a bit of a liability defensively, although of course he has many qualities, he’s a far better player than both Oscar and Matic, in terms of ability. Oscar is the more dynamic player however and Matic is more solid, and that’s what Conte has plumped for so far in our midfield.

Fabregas is not quite a Pirlo, he’s not quite a Modric, and he’s not quite a Mata. He used to play box-to-box, for Arsenal, where he made his name, but he’s not quite cut out for that role anymore, physically. He’s slow, not to put to fine a point on it, he’s lightweight and he’s pretty pedestrian. He was fine with Matic by his side for the first half of our title-winning season under Jose, but then we got overrun at White Hart Lane and the rest, as they say, is history. The Matic-Fabregas pivot has seldom been seen again. Basically we could be got at and this was only proved further in the game against Bristol Rovers. They started to overrun us a bit in midfield, hence they got back in the game.

Whether Conte finds a role for Fabregas remains to be seen. Certainly it’s hard to imagine a player of that quality being content with a place on the bench. We will see.

Defensively there are problems which Conte has sought to address in the window. Terry remains Chelsea’s best defender but he’s not the player he was. Ivanovic has been better this term from a defensive perspective but still leaves a lot to be desired going forward and Cahill will never be top notch, though he’s a decent defender who’s worthy of a place in the squad.

Conte brings in Alonso at the eleventh hour in the window, a signing which has generally been met with a lot of indifference from Chelsea supporters, understandably, given we have possibly sold three better left-backs in recent years, in Luis, Bertrand and Van Aanholt. Nonetheless we needed a left-footed defender and Conte has clearly seen a lot of Alonso playing in Serie A. Alonso is a good age and has Premiership experience. He’s done well at Bolton and Sunderland and established himself in Serie A, so he can’t be all bad. Word has it he lacks pace and physicality and tends to lose concentration and he’s far better going forward. We will see. Conte obviously feels he can work with him. He’s used to playing wing-back and as the left-sided centre-back in a back three, so he also gives Conte the option of going that way. Which brings me nicely to ..

David Luiz. A signing that has polarized opinion I think it’s fair to say. It’s no secret he wasn’t Conte’s first choice. First it appears the club went after Bonucci, then Koulibaly then Romagnoli, in each case they found they weren’t for sale, at least not at the prices offered, and Chelsea bid big, £42m in the case of Koulibaly if reports are to be believed. All of which tells us Conte wants to change something with the defence, either in terms of personnel or in terms of numbers.

It will be interesting to see if Luiz comes straight in against Swansea, and if so, whether we play three at the back now that Conte has that option, or whether he comes in for a straight swap with Cahill. Similarly, it will be interesting to see what happens with Alonso, whether he comes straight in and we finally have a left-footed full-back on the left, and whether that means Azpilicueta finally gets the chance to play regularly on the right. If Conte sticks with a back four, I suspect Alonso may struggle to get a game. If he goes three at the back however you’d think Alonso is a shoo-in for a spot. Luiz gives you that option of going three at the back because he can play as the spare man, meaning he would be less of a liability defensively. We all know he’s prone to the odd rush of blood to the head occasionally. As the spare man he can bring the ball forward, he can hit those glorious forward passes, and he can act as cover for his partners. He may be ready-made for the role. It seems certain we’re going to see him play that role at some point, as we know Conte has played that way previously, and we know he has the requisite qualities, even if he isn’t the world’s greatest defender.

Some Chelsea fans are wondering why we didn’t go after a Mustafi say, or a Maksimovic, if they were available and if we couldn’t get our top targets. Here I have to read Conte’s mind a bit, or at least try. Firstly, those centre-backs are less likely to be able to play the spare man, in all probability. Secondly, although they may be good defenders, and possible upgrades on Ivanovic and Cahill, they may not be enough of an upgrade to warrant the fee, particularly as we have Zouma coming back soon hopefully and Christensen returning next term, both of whom are outstanding prospects. Thirdly, Luiz has Premiership experience, he’s here more for the here and now, rather than the future, so in a perverse way he’s less of a risk, although he happens to be the riskiest of defenders, in terms of playing style. As with Alonso, his Premiership experience may have been a factor in Conte signing him, plus the fact he was actually available as well.

A pragmatic decision to sign him I think and one that will probably prove worthwhile. We hope so. All in all I think Conte must be pretty happy with his squad. It’s not exactly as he would have wanted but we’ve had a pretty successful window. Our squad is far stronger than last term, we have brought in four outfield players and haven’t lost anyone of significance, so the depth is there, as well as added quality.

Conte has gone for experience over youth, as he clearly feels that’s the best way to compete this term. Kids such as Ake, Traore and Kenedy have been sent out on loan, hopefully to get regular game-time which will aid their development far better than if they were making up the numbers back home. Many of this squad have a point to prove, after last term, and many are also fighting for their Chelsea futures, so Conte obviously feels they’ll be highly motivated. Besides, they’re good players, most of them have a record of winning, and he’ll feel confident he can extract the best out of them. The early signs are encouraging ..

Our last game before the international break, against Burnley, saw our best performance to date, and gave us something to really get excited about. It was the best performance for one and a half years, in my opinion. Yes you could say it was only Burnley but it was the manner of the victory that was so encouraging. We moved the ball about at greater speed and we were more cut-throat. We also played with a lot of confidence and the signs were there that we are being given far more freedom than we were under Jose.

The players had stopped enjoying playing under Jose, that much was clear. He had stifled any individual expression, as he is prone to do. In the second-half of the game against Burnley our players had their tails up. Hazard and Oscar both tried a rabona, which would have undoubtedly incurred Jose’s wrath. It seems like the players had been let of the leash a bit.

Long may it continue. The performance was exhilarating. We were a team on the front foot, a team with an attacking mindset. We could easily have hit double figures, if our finishing had been better. It’s been a long time since we really put sides to the sword. Under Jose, we would invariably play safe when in the lead, rather than really go for the jugular. I doubt very much Burnley will have a tougher game all term.

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Next up Swansea, a tricky away game. Some of our players may be tired from travelling and playing international games, and what with the new arrivals, Conte may have a selection dilemma. Either way, it’s good to have a bit of choice, and a bit of competition for places, which hasn’t been there for a long while. One presumes Conte won’t want to change it too much after Burnley but going forward it will be fascinating to see what he has in mind for his first team, and whether this will sustain us for a title challenge.

Let’s hope it’s a good performance but more importantly, let’s hope we win and keep our winning run going. If the Manchester derby ends in a draw this Saturday, we could have the chance to go top.

Forza Conte.

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