(Writer’s Note: This is the 16th of what will hopefully be 20 team previews in 20 days. Or at the very least, all 20 teams prior to the 2018-19 Premier League’s season-opener between Manchester United and Leicester City on August 10. Links to previous teams can be found at the bottom of the page)
Manager: Maurizio Sarri (Hire Date: July 14, 2018)
Tenure Length: 20th/20 in Premier League and 92nd/92 in Top 4 leagues of English football
2017-18 Record: 21-7-10, 70 points, 5th in Premier League
2017-18 Goals scored: 62
2017-18 Goal Difference: plus-24
Number of Current Consecutive Seasons in Premier League: 30 (includes 2018-19)
Last Promotion: 1989
Last Relegation: 1988
2017-18 Champions League: Round of 16 two-legged loss (Barcelona)
2017-18 Carabao Cup: Semifinal loss 2-1 on aggregate (Arsenal)
2017-18 FA Cup: Champions (1-0 win over Manchester United)
All the joy from winning the title in 2017 dissipated quickly over the summer as Antonio Conte bemoaned the lack of incoming transfers to run a dual track with Premier League and Champions League play despite acquiring Tiemoue Bakayoko, Antonio Rudiger, and Alvaro Morata. Conte also contributed to the lack of personnel by informing Diego Costa his services would no longer be needed via text message, which turned into a standoff over the first half of the season when he refused to report to Cobham for training.
Chelsea again loaned out a staggering amount of young players, most notably Ruben Loftus-Cheek (Crystal Palace), Tammy Abraham (Swansea City), and Kurt Zouma (Stoke City). The Blues also absorbed a tough blow the week before the Community Shield match against Arsenal when Nemanja Matic bolted Stamford Bridge for Manchester United. The Blues would lose that match on penalties after playing to a 1-1 draw.
The season started out on a grim note as Gary Cahill picked up a red card and Burnley blitzed the Blues for three goals. Chelsea pulled two back but were not able to nick a point in its home opener. It righted the ship quickly with seven wins in eight matches across all competitions, but before the October international break, Conte got bamboozled by Pep Guardiola in a 1-0 home loss to Manchester City in which the Citizens played so wide they turned Chelsea’s 3-5-2 set-up into a flat five-man back line.
The hangover continued after the break with a 2-1 loss at Crystal Palace, a side that had lost its first seven games without even scoring a goal before that breakthrough. A wild 3-3 draw against AS Roma at home in Champions League play did little to soothe Conte’s mood, but the Pensioners did go 8-3-1 in their next 12 matches in all competitions.
Chelsea climbed as high as second in the table after thrashing Stoke City 5-0 on Dec. 30, but an offensive slump contributed to five straight draws. Two of them came in FA Cup play versus Norwich City, with Chelsea advancing on penalties after the second stalemate. The Blues were dumped out of the Carabao Cup in the semifinals over two legs by Arsenal, and while they had advanced in the FA Cup, back-to-back losses to Bournemouth and Watford by a combined 7-1 scoreline had everyone on edge.
In the Champions League, Chelsea reached the knockout round opposite Barcelona, and the Catalan side left Stamford Bridge with a 1-1 draw after Lionel Messi scored a vital equaliser in the 75th minute. Back-to-back road losses to both Manchester teams knocked Chelsea down to fifth in the table, and the latter loss again, 1-0 to City, saw Conte’s lineup called into question as he used Eden Hazard in a false nine.
Chelsea was run out of the Champions League in the second leg, falling 3-0 at the Nou Camp as Messi hit a milestone with his 100th goal in Europe’s top club tournament. The inconsistent play continued, with an FA Cup win over Leicester City followed by Chelsea’s first home loss to Tottenham Hotspur in league play since 1990.
The underlying theme after those back-to-back losses to Watford and Bournemouth — losses which the Italian thought would result in his sacking he later revealed — was Conte warring with the team ownership through the press, with multiple outlets reporting on his frosty/non-existent relationship with club director Marina Granovskaia, who was in charge of working on transfers at Chelsea.
Conte did get Olivier Giroud, Ross Barkley and Emerson in the January window — at a combined price of £50 million — from Arsenal, Everton and AS Roma, respectively, but Giroud and Barkley were pieces who were difficult to fit into his style. Giroud, meanwhile, scored five goals in 18 matches in all competitions; Barkley and Emerson played 11 matches combined.
Michy Batshuayi, who had 10 goals in all competitions for Chelsea, was loaned out to Borussia Dortmund and scored seven goals in nine matches in the Bundesliga, while Kenedy was sent to Newcastle United. Costa’s stalemate ended with a £50 million move to Atletico Madrid, who he helped power back into the Champions League by winning the Europa League title.
Though Chelsea would go unbeaten over the six ensuing matches after the home loss to Spurs, it still was unable to make up the needed ground on Liverpool for a top-four finish. The mathematics were sealed on the final matchday of the season with a 3-0 loss at Newcastle United while Liverpool defeated Brighton and Hove Albion 4-0.
Though Conte sulked after the loss to the Magpies, the Blues regrouped and concluded the season on a positive note, defeating Manchester United 1-0 to win the FA Cup as Hazard’s penalty kick in the 22nd minute stood as the winner.
While Conte was assumed to be a dead manager walking the final three months of the season, the actual process of him leaving Stamford Bridge was protracted and nasty. He threatened to sit out the whole year should he be fired and collect the £9 million salary Chelsea would owe him rather than find another job to offset that amount, and ownership were ready to deny him some of that figure based on his dismissal of Costa.
Conte was not dismissed until July — with his £9 million payout — while Chelsea was negotiating for Maurizio Sarri to be his successor for most of the summer. That also did not come without some difficulties because his former club Naples wanted assurances that Jorginho would be the only player joining Sarri at Chelsea. When that £50 million deal was finalised, everyone could finally exhale, and the new chain-smoking Italian gaffer replaced the fiery espresso-drinking Italian gaffer.
POTENTIAL STARTING XI
With the uncertainty still surrounding Chelsea in the transfer market, there could be as many as four different names between this projected starting XI for the opener at Huddersfield Town in less than a fortnight and the actual one Sarri settles upon.
There is definitely interest in Courtois, but it is hard to believe Chelsea would let him leave without an immediate No. 1 lined up as a replacement considering Courtois’ current deputies are 36-year-old Willy Caballero and recent signing and 38-year-old Rob Green.
The Blues are deep in the back, with Emerson expected to displace a solid Marcos Alonso at left back while Rudiger and Andreas Christensen are expected to form a partnership in central defence while veterans Gary Cahill and David Luiz can be used in domestic cups or step in if either of the youngsters falter.
Given how Jorginho will be on the ball more, it makes more sense Kante would drop deeper in the midfield in front of the back four. The midfielder next to Jorginho will eventually be Loftus-Cheek, but it would not be surprising to see Cesc Fabregas there the first few matches. Hazard and Pedro will be on the flanks while Morata will lead the line unless that big signing materialises between now and Aug. 9.
THE NEW GUYS AND THE GONE GUYS
Chelsea’s transfer window is still in a state of flux because it took so long to finalise Conte’s termination and Sarri’s arrival. Unless some staggering name walks through the door at Stamford Bridge, Jorginho will be the biggest signing as he is expected to be central to Sarri’s 4-3-3 formation as the team’s string-puller and playmaker.
The London side is in a fight to keep their top two Belgians — Hazard and keeper Thibaut Courtois — as Real Madrid are reportedly ready to make a nine-figure offer for the pair. Hazard has all but directly said he wants to join the reigning three-time Champions League winners, but since he has two years left on his deal, Chelsea are not as willing to part with him as Courtois.
There are reports Madrid are willing to offer up to £130 million for Courtois and Willian, who never fully found a place in the starting lineup last season and had an uneven World Cup for Brazil in reaching the quarterfinals before losing to Hazard, Courtois, and Belgium.
The only other signing to cross the £1 million threshold was centre back and teenage starlet Pierre Ekwah, who came over from Nantes with a £1.8 million price tag. The 16-year-old will start the season with Chelsea’s Under-18 side.
Kenedy will again be at Newcastle United, while there have been rumours Atletico Madrid and Marseille are interested in taking on Giroud on a loan as opposed to a permanent move. The throwback striker, also on France’s victorious squad in Russia, would prefer to fight for a spot on Chelsea’s roster.
Other players rumored to have a possible landing spot at Stamford Bridge include Gonzalo Higuain, who may be surplus to goods at Juventus with the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo.
THE GUY WORTH SEEING
N’Golo Kante (MF)
After winning a World Cup with France this summer and cementing his status as the world’s best defensive midfielder, Kante was rewarded with a new pay packet reportedly worth nearly £300,000 per week to help fend off club suitors from France and Spain. What is of immediate concern upon his arrival to Chelsea — which likely will be the week leading up to the season-opener — is how will he will co-exist with Jorginho in the midfield in Sarri’s new 4-3-3 set-up.
Per Ladbrokes, Chelsea is fourth with 12/1 odds to win the Premier League title, behind favorite and reigning champion Manchester City and both Liverpool and Manchester United. The Pensioners have 4/6 odds to finish in the top four and return to Champions League play in that method and also 1/9 odds for a top-six finish.
For individuals, Eden Hazard, Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud all have 25/1 odds to win the Premier League’s Golden Boot as the league’s top scorer, while Hazard and Morata both have 5/2 odds to be Chelsea’s top scorer, followed by Giroud (4/1) and Michy Batshuayi (6/1).
FIRST FOUR MATCHES/LAST FOUR MATCHES
Aug. 11 — Huddersfield Town (16th) A
Aug. 18 — Arsenal (6th) H
Aug. 26 — Newcastle United (10th) A
Sept. 1 — Bournemouth (12th) H
April 20 — Burnley (7th) H
April 27 — Manchester United (2nd) A
May 4 — Watford (14th) H
May 12 — Leicester City (9th) A
Much the way Arsenal needed to clear the room after Wenger stepped down, so did Chelsea in the parting of the ways with Conte. In steps Sarri, and with him comes optimism after seeing him infuse life into Napoli, where he won 65 percent of his games in two seasons and posted the highest point total of any Serie A team that did not win the scudetto.
Sarri-ball is based on instinctively quick one-touch forward passing, a tiki-taka with purpose if you like. That is an oversimplification of the offence, but Jorginho will be held up as the model of how it works at every training session at Cobham, evidenced by the 98 passes he completed in 45 minutes in Chelsea’s exhibition opener in Australia.
Yet with every new foreign manager and revolutionary style he brings, the question always remains, “But can they do it on a cold, rainy night in Stoke?” Most recently, the answer has been a resounding yes, from Jose Mourinho’s first two stints at Chelsea, to Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool to Guardiola at Manchester City and, yes, even Conte during his two-season stint at Stamford Bridge.
The blood-and-thunder of the Premier League still exists, but innovation — and deep pockets — abounds at its highest levels, and Chelsea need Sarri-ball to work to stay in that upper echelon. The hub-and-spoke experiment Sarri has with Jorginho will be scrutinised endlessly and with good reason — it is easy to ridicule a £50 million experiment gone haywire and lavish praise on it when it succeeds. That is what happened two years ago when Conte saw his team get shredded by Arsenal and used a meaningless 45 minutes to implement his three-man backline that ran roughshod on the Premier League in 2016-17.
The key for Chelsea is to not lose significant personnel in attack. The Blues desperately need Hazard to stay on board, and keeping Willian unless getting blown out of the water with an offer makes more sense than letting the Brasilian leave. This is also an offense that caters to Fabregas’ skill, though the idea of Jorginho, Kante and Loftus-Cheek bustling through the middle third of a pitch in both directions is a salivating prospect.
It’s hard to peg exactly where Chelsea lineup because it is part of that same five-team group as last season trying to figure out how to make up ground on Manchester City while also qualifying for Champions League. The best path may be through the Europa League.
PREVIOUS TEAMS’ PREVIEWS
July 18 — Fulham July 28 — Newcastle United
July 19 — Cardiff City July 29 — Leicester City
July 20 — Wolverhampton July 30 — Everton
July 21 — Southampton July 31 — Burnley
July 22 — Huddersfield Town August 1 — Arsenal
July 23 — Brighton and Hove Albion August 2 — Chelsea
July 24 — Watford August 3 — Liverpool
July 25 — West Ham United August 4 — Tottenham Hotspur
July 26 — Bournemouth August 5 — Manchester United
July 27 — Crystal Palace August 6 — Manchester City
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