Guardian writers’ predicted position: 4th (NB: this is not necessarily Paul Doyle’s prediction but the average of our writers’ tips)
Last season’s position: 10th
Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker): 6-1
Chelsea did not defend their title last season so much as prosecute it for fraud, so it is going to be fascinating to see what sort of case they put forward this time. 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”.
Some 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. Probably he will try to do all three in varying doses; if he gets it right in a division in which all rivals also appear to have flaws, then Chelsea could conceivably be champions again. But if he doesn’t find a winning formula quickly, then they could remain estranged from the top four, a currently high-flying manager could be sent on his bike and there will be a belated mass purge at Stamford Bridge.
Two causes for optimism arrived in the persons of Chelsea’s two major player recruits, Michy Batshuayi and N’Golo Kanté, both of whom look well suited to Conte’s forceful style. Paying £33m for a striker who is not fully polished shows the level to which inflation has climbed but Batshuayi has the potential to make a big impact on the Premier League and does not seem inclined to distract himself with senseless spoiling for a fight, which gives him an edge on Diego Costa for one.
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 fulcrum. The Italian has also hinted that he is open to ending 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. Conte would then have to demonstrate his coaching skills by honing the two young Belgians into a consistently deadly strikeforce; and if the manager can do likewise with the gifted Bertrand Traoré, then Chelsea would have fearsome and very fast attacking options before there is any need to wonder about Loïc Rémy’s ability to contribute.
Kanté, meanwhile, is a little war machine all by himself and will immediately upgrade Chelsea’s central midfield, whether as part of a duo or a trident. The Frenchman is a canny user of the ball but is particularly dynamic when it comes to winning it back, which was a persistent failing of Chelsea last season, aggravating the team’s sudden defensive weakness. Who plays alongside Kanté – and how many – will obviously depend on how Conte aims to protect the defence and supply the attack.
If the manager chooses to play with just two in the centre, will Cesc Fàbregas rely on Kanté to do all the defensive work or will he start putting himself about with more gusto than in the past 18 months and more accuracy than in the recent friendly against Liverpool, when his apparent attempt to tackle resulted in a sore foot for Raglan Klavan and a red card for Fàbregas? Or will the Catalan be squeezed out of the side in place of, say, Oscar, whose form would have to stop seesawing?
Or perhaps Nemanja Matic be given a chance to reverse last season’s mysterious downturn? Will the new manager do what José Mourinho could not bring himself to do and put his trust in youth by giving prolonged spells of action to players such as Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Kenedy or Nathaniel Chalobah? Conte could be said to have either a wealth of options or a lack of reliable performers in central midfield: it will be up to him to ensure it is the former.
One of Conte’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, when his players’ player of the year award merely increased the pining for Luis Suárez and Cristiano Ronaldo. Like Fàbregas and Pedro, Hazard does not seem to have a character that fits easily into a “war machine”, yet his nature seems uniquely peculiar, almost perversely passive, as he shrugs off brutal tackles with little complaint but then, too often, subdues himself.
In pre-season Hazard has looked in the mood to make his mark again. Presumably on his new manager, but possibly on would-be buyers.
Pre-season has also suggested that Conte may not, as expected, default to a back three. He has always said he is not shackled to a particular formation but adapts team shape to the players at his disposal and the opposition on a given day. It was natural to play with three 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.
The interest in Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly suggests Conte knows he needs at least one new pillar for his defence even if Kurt Zouma’s return from injury is good news. The absence of any obvious proven wing-backs (let’s not start suggesting that as a route for Victor Moses into the starting lineup) also makes a flat back four look the more likely option. Even then, there are concerns about Chelsea’s full-backs, especially on the right, where Conte will have to ensure either that Branislav Ivanovic can regain the consistency of yesteryear or the 19-year-old Ola Aina can rapidly step up.
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.
Despite their implosion last season Chelsea were contributors to the most entertaining match of the campaign. If Conte can focus their minds this season in the same way that the prospect of Tottenham Hotspur glory did in May, then an Italian manager could be lifting the title again.
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