Antonio Conte has a tough job ahead.
Chelsea’s demise from Premier League Champions to mid-table no-hopers is well documented, and the acrimonious departure of Jose Mourinho continues to rankle with Blues fans.
With the awful 2015-16 thankfully nearly over, the Stamford Bridge faithful might have been looking forward to next season, with Italian boss Antonio Conte taking over in the summer to rebuild and reshape the team to challenge for honours.
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However, despite a brief resurgence under caretaker (and draw specialist) Guus Hiddink, the poor performances over the last two weeks have shown that there is much to do, possibly too much to turn things around next season.A gutless performance v Swansea with no fight and leadership was followed by a defensive shambles at home to Man City’s breakaways, and the continued poor form of Branislav Ivanovic, Oscar, Nemanja Matic and others leaves little room to juggle the squad to re-inspire some confidence.
A gutless performance v Swansea with no fight and leadership was followed by a defensive shambles at home to Man City’s breakaways, and the continued poor form of Branislav Ivanovic, Oscar, Nemanja Matic and others leaves little room to juggle the squad to re-inspire some confidence.
Firstly, Chelsea no longer have the same dressing room characters or on the pitch leaders as they did in their heyday – Petr Cech, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba have all departed and it seems the last , and possibly best of those players, John Terry will be leaving in the summer too. There are no other organisers and motivators in their mould in the current squad.
Secondly, they lack real world-class players like Sergio Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne, Alexis Sanchez – as well as the players above Michael Ballack, and Ashley Cole are long departed – only maybe Cesc Fabregas (sadly all too rarely) and Willian on their day could be even among the league's elite on this season’s showings.
The jury is still out on whether the Blues’ youngsters are good enough – Kenedy, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Bertrand Traore have all shown some moments of hope while others like Jake Salter-Clarke may be given a chance.
There’s also on loan players like Patrick Bamford, Nathan Ake and Andreas Christensen who have impressed elsewhere and could be brought back into the squad – but they are not yet the kind of world-beaters Chelsea need. Nor, on previous showings, would the recall of Juan Cuadrado be an option.
So who does Conte bring in? Much depends on who leaves – Oscar, Matic, John Obi-Mikel, Falcao and Loic Remy seem likely to leave, with major doubts remaining over Eden Hazard, Diego Costa and keeper Thibaut Courtois. Names such as Paul Pogba at Conte’s former club, Atletico’s striker Antoine Griezmann, Belgian midfielder Radja Nainggolan, Real’s James Rodriguez, Napoli’s Gonzalo Higuain and even ex-striker Romelu Lukaku have all been linked with moves this summer.
However, buying a central defender has to be a priority, especially if Terry leaves while Kurt Zouma remains on the long-term injury list. Moves for PSG’s Marquinhos and even veteran Sergio Ramos at Madrid could be considered, with Everton’s John Stones seemingly off the shopping list after last year's failed pursuit.
Attracting the right players
With no Champions League, it will be difficult to attract the players that Chelsea need to seriously challenge and it may even take two or three seasons to overhaul the squad and give them the necessary experience for success.
There’s also the whole issue of the Stamford Bridge Ground redevelopment and its impact on revenue, support and the future. No one really knows where Chelsea will be playing home games over the next three to five years and it is hard to see how Twickenham, Wembley or other potential stadia will be the fortress that Stamford Bridge became during the recent successful seasons.
Choosing who stays
So where does the Italian start?
Keeping skipper Terry must be critical – he is still the best defender Chelsea have, add his experience and leadership and surely he can be given a role to develop members of the trophy-winning youth team?
Another priority is to restore dressing room harmony and confidence, so a new backroom is needed, perhaps employing someone like Drogba or Gianfranco Zola as a buffer between manager and players could improve morale.
Willian, Cesar Azpilicueta , Zouma have all been good for most of this season and must be retained, as should Fabregas and Pedro, unless upgrade replacements are found. If any or all of Costa, Hazard and Courtois can be persuaded to stay, that would be a bonus.
Realistically, a cup triumph and a top four finish must be the target. Otherwise, Conte may find the task impossible and Roman Abramovich may regret letting Jose Mourinho go again, especially if he revitalises Manchester United.