Chelsea Season Preview: Where will the Premier League champions finish in 2017/18?
“You have to ask the club about this.”
The signs are ominous. Antonio Conte may have won the Premier League title in his debut season in charge of the Chelsea but he certainly does not look like he is in charge anymore.
The above quote was made when he was asked about the sale of Nemanja Matic to arch-rivals Manchester United. All it took was £40m - a nominal fee in today's transfer market for a PL-proven midfielder.
With a week to go before the season kicks off, Chelsea then lost to Arsenal yet again at Wembley - this time in the Community Shield. Having lost the FA Cup final in May, the Blues lost in a penalty shootout to leave Conte smouldering on the touchline.
So what can we expect from the Blues now in the 2017/18 season?
In: Alvaro Morata (Real Madrid, £70m), Tiemoue Bakayoko (AS Monaco, £39.7m), Antonio Rudiger (AS Roma, £34m), Willy Caballero (Manchester City, free)
It was clear from the get-go that the club's board and Conte did not see eye-to-eye on various matters with respect to personnel in the squad. For starters, the board reportedly wanted to re-sign Romelu Lukaku - a striker who has improved exponentially after his move away from Stamford Bridge.
But Conte stepped in and asked for Morata from Real Madrid - a player he signed at Juventus but did not get the chance to manage.
With Diego Costa frozen out of the squad, the Italian boss went for a striker who competes with Costa for a spot up front in the Spain national team.
Bakayoko was signed with Matic's impending departure in mind while Rudiger will replace outgoing captain John Terry (in the squad i.e.).
Judging by their transfer business so far, the club have only replaced players in the squad - not added to it to strengthen it prior to a far more challenging campaign with European football added to their calendar.
Out: Nemanja Matic (Manchester United, £40m), Nathan Ake (Bournemouth, £20m), John Terry (Aston Villa, free), Juan Cuadrado (Juventus, £17m), Asmir Begovic (Bournemouth, £10m), Kurt Zouma (Stoke City, loan), Bertrand Traore (Lyon, £8.8m), Christian Atsu (Newcastle, £6.2 m), Nathaniel Chalobah (Watford, £5m)
While the transfers of Begovic, Terry, Chalobah and Atsu will not hurt Conte, the others do seem detrimental to the club. Cuadrado's transfer no longer makes any sense having played on loan at Juventus for two seasons before his permanent switch this summer.
Extending Zouma's contract only to send him on loan to bring in Rudiger also suggests that Conte does not trust him yet to be a regular. Ake, a valuable squad player, had a successful loan spell at Bournemouth that was cut short last season but he's heading back for good now.
The biggest loss is undoubtedly Matic. While they do have an upgrade in Bakoyoko, the fact that Chelsea have strengthened a title rival only makes you question why the club failed to retain the big Serbian midfielder. Bakoyoko has potential but is still untested in England.
Probable Starting XI
Despite the loss in the Community Shield, it's not all doom and gloom at Chelsea - yet. Their biggest worry right now will be the start of the season.
Eden Hazard is sidelined for at least another couple of months while Victor Moses is suspended for the opener following his red card in the FA Cup final (since it was a second yellow, he only serves a one-match ban).
With Morata and Michy Batshuayi in the squad, Conte could be tempted to play a 3-5-2 instead of his regular 3-4-2-1. That would allow him to play Cesc Fabregas behind the strikers.
Despite his quality on the ball, the Spanish midfielder has struggled to seal his place in Conte's system. The 30-year-old made more substitute appearances than starts last season but still managed to get 12 assists in the league.
Conte also has the choice of playing Azpilicueta as a wing-back to bring Rudiger into the back-line. We might get to see that when Chelsea play Burnley on Matchday 1 since Moses is suspended.
Bakoyoko represents some good business by Chelsea to add some all-round steel to central midfield that is sometimes bereft of creativity. The French midfielder is strong in the tackle, takes up good positions to make interceptions and can dribble his way out of danger.
Having played in a midfield two at Monaco, he could fit right in at Chelsea when he is back from injury.
One of Chelsea's biggest weakness is actually one of their biggest strengths in ideal circumstances and it goes by the name of Diego Costa. Conte wants nothing to do with the striker who is now in limbo; seeking a move to Atletico Madrid who have so far not made a move for him thanks to their transfer ban.
Last season's Chelsea squad did not have many weaknesses. Their weakest player was Moses who still put in a good shift before fading in the second half of the season. But you do get the feeling that Conte could find a better player to play in that role if he wished (or rather if Chelsea accede).
But their biggest weakness is arguably their squad depth. Last season saw Chelsea prioritise the Premier League and win it partly due to the absence of European nights at the Bridge.
With Champions League football added to the fixture list, he cannot play the same XI every week. Since youngsters barely get a look-in at Chelsea, he must buy some quality backups or he risks losing the initiative halfway through a grueling season.
"We know the difficulty of the next season and for sure we want to avoid the Mourinho season with Chelsea." - Conte
The Italian boss wasn't pulling any punches when he let his players know what is expected of them. The disastrous 2015/16 campaign saw the defending champions finish 10th and it is a scenario Conte will not allow to happen - even if he has to single-handedly drag Chelsea over the line.
Conte signed a new two-year contract with the club but his attitude in recent weeks suggest all is not rosy at the club. But if he stays the entire season, Chelsea will be guaranteed a top four finish.
However, defending the title seems a little far-fetched at the moment, especially with this squad. The most they can probably hope for is probably a third place finish.
But stranger things have happened and it is tough to write off Conte. But will the board support him in rebuilding the squad to his specifications?