Chelsea's Nemanja Matic in action
With the Premier League season fast approaching, fans and players alike are gearing up for another amazingly unpredictable season of football. After Leicester City’s most unlikely of title wins last season, every single ‘smaller’ team will be looking to their example for the upcoming season, while the ‘big boys’ will be looking to get back to business as usual.
A side that loitered unthreateningly in mid-table last season were Chelsea. The 2014/15 Premier League champions made a limp attempt at defending their title as they ended a mammoth 31 points behind eventual winners Leicester City. Dressing room unrest, poor performances and the removal of the ‘Special One’ culminated in a mid-table finish and a failure to gain any European football for the upcoming season.
However, Chelsea fans will hope that a new season will breathe life into them anew. New manager Antonio Conte, who joined following a solid campaign at the European Championships with Italy reaching the quarter-finals, takes over from Guus Hiddink and will be looking for an entirely different campaign this time around.
So who might Conte prefer in his starting XI? Will it be out with the old and in with the new? Or will the spine of the team be a very similar one to last season?
In goal is Thibaut Courtois. The Belgian endured a difficult campaign last time around. The saying ‘start as you mean to go on’ can be applied as he was sent off in the opening game against Swansea, before struggling for form throughout the season as he fought with Asmir Begovic for the number one jersey. Courtois is an undoubtedly talented player with his exploits for Atletico Madrid in particular drawing many to place him as the best young goalkeeper in the world. His huge frame, shot stopping ability and willingness to claim the ball in the air takes a massive pressure off his defence and marks him as one of the Premier League’s best goalkeepers. The Belgian will be hoping that the new season will bring a return to form.
Conte was an advocate of playing three centre-backs who were given wide cover by two wing-backs. It is likely then that the Italian boss will choose to continue John Terry’s role as captain at the heart of the defence alongside the experience of Gary Cahill and Branislav Ivanovic. The three struggled last season with Ivanovic in particular coming in for a lot of criticism following a superb 2014/15 season. Perhaps a complete change of system will help to rejuvenate the ageing defence.
The wing-backs are a problem for Conte. Cesar Azpilicueta is a superbly versatile player who is actually, by trade, a right back. However, with the form of Ivanovic in recent times, Azpilicueta was utilised as a left-back. This switch has allowed him to become one of the Premier League’s best full-backs. The right hand side of the defence is problematic for Conte. Baba Rahman was recently loaned out to Schalke which leaves very little cover on the wings. Ivanovic has been playing at right-back for the past few years, however, he does not possess the pace to play that position effectively and would perhaps be better at centre-back. This means that the job of playing out wide may fall to Willian. Chelsea’s Player of the Season and the only real bright spot of the campaign, the Brazilian may find his focus shifted this season with Conte favouring wide players who defend as well as attack.
France's N'Golo Kante in action with Albania's Ledian Memushaj
In midfield is the pairing of Nemanja Matic and new signing N’Golo Kante. Matic was superb in Chelsea’s Premier League winning season while Kante was unstoppable for Leicester last season. The twinned defensive and offensive ability of the two could prove to be a formidable combination for the Blues this season. Conte will be hoping that fresh blood in the midfield will revive Matic’s previous form, while he will also expect Kante to pick up where he left off last season.
Playing in central-midfield and as an attacking midfielder are Cesc Fabregas and Eden Hazard. The two took a huge amount of the blame for Chelsea’s struggles last season with neither able to hit the heights of their title winning campaign. Fabregas may have a far more effective campaign this season if he is afforded the luxury of shirking some defensive duties. The former Arsenal man is a superbly creative player and was shackled at points last season, playing deeper than he might have liked. The fact that Kante will be playing behind him bodes well for Fabregas too as the Frenchman is proficient offensively as well as defensively, proving an able body going forward, something John Obi Mikel was unable to provide last season.
Hazard is another player still looking for a return to the form of Chelsea’s title winning season. An incredible talent and unplayable on his day, the Belgian struggled for form and goals last season, however, his curling effort to deny Tottenham a shot at the title will have Chelsea fans hoping he is on the cusp of a revival.
Chelsea's Diego Costa in action
Up front is Diego Costa. The Spanish striker struggled for goals last season and was guilty of a few poor decisions. A striker of immense power and desire, Costa must turn his attentions to scoring more this season and away from the opposition trying to get under his skin. He has been linked with a move away from London recently but with no solid evidence that he is leaving, he makes the starting line-up.
The team is very close to the one that started last campaign with the only real change being the formation. However, there is no guarantee that Conte will choose to play with three centre-backs and he may opt for a more conventional formation instead. Therefore, it is impossible to know how Conte's side will shape up at the beginning of the season. the phrase 'only time will tell' is especially apt here with Conte's maiden Chelsea campaign fast approaching.