Chelsea's stuttering start under Antonio Conte is understandable
A disappointing draw away to a struggling Swansea was followed up with two consecutive defeats against Liverpool and Arsenal respectively before the Blues got back to winning ways against manager-less Hull City before the international break.
There is a great expectation on Conte to turn this Chelsea side back into title contenders, but his task is far from straightforward. Fortunately for Blues fans, the Italian has quite a reputation for bringing out the best in underperforming sides. After a mixed spell with Atalanta, Conte did a solid job at Siena, before succeeding Luigi Delneri at Juventus.
Conte, then, took a little time to make his mark on the Bianconeri and have them playing exactly as he would like. La Vecchia Signora would go on to win three successive Scudetti in his three years there, this after back-to-back seventh place finishes in Serie A.
Joining the Stamford Bridge side, however, provides the tactician with perhaps a more challenging turnaround. Not only does the Premier League boast a higher number of realistic champions, but this season is home to most of world football’s top managers.
Changing tactics so drastically is not an overnight process
While 4-2-3-1 is the most popular formation in England, Conte prefers to set his teams up in a more Italian 3-5-2 or 4-2-4. The former is rarely received well in England and often takes longer than usual for players to familiarise themselves with.
The personnel at Conte’s disposal in London are well-drilled to play in a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3 formation, with few having played in his preferred systems before.
Conte has primarily used a 4-1-4-1 so far. Opting for a cautious and slow transition from the old style to his own. When chasing a goal, Michy Batshuayi has regularly been introduced to accompany Diego Costa at the top of a 4-2-4, which has worked well on occasion for the Blues.
Whether it was because of their unimpressive start or because he feels his players are ready, Conte turned to his 3-5-2 in the 2-0 defeat of Hull, which ultimately proved to be a good decision. Whether or not this will continue to be used in what are still the early stages of his tenure remains to be seen.
Conte has not yet got the players he needs
Chelsea’s transfer window was relatively quiet for a club looking to bounce back after an abysmal campaign. The most high-profile new face wasn’t a new face at all, rather a familiar and returning one as David Luiz made his way back from Paris Saint-Germain on deadline day.
Throughout the window, there was no secret made of the fact that the club were on the lookout for defensive reinforcements, and given the belated arrival of Luiz, it is safe to say he was not exactly top of their shortlist.
The capture of Marcos Alonso suggested a switch of formation was imminent, with the Spaniard more comfortable operating as a wing-back than a traditional full-back.
N’Golo Kante is the summer signing who makes the most sense irrespective of tactical setup. He fits into all systems and is a perfect example of an Antonio Conte-type player.
Kurt Zouma will be returning from his long-term absence soon, and Andreas Christensen could return in the summer after two impressive seasons with Borussia Monchengladbach, but these would just be a starting point.
More than just needing to add, Conte will likely want to offload a select group of players, with many seeing Cesc Fabregas’ days at the club as being numbered.
Roman Abramovich will need to spend in January and next summer to deliver the players needed for the club to challenge for trophies again soon.
What can realistically be expected of Chelsea?
This season, Chelsea should be focussing on returning to the Champions League and putting the title to the back of their minds. Manchester City look almost imperiously strong while Arsenal and Tottenham might just be ready to go one step further than they have in recent years. Furthermore, Liverpool look to have found their feet under Jurgen Klopp and might be able to push the others to the end.
The above considered, clinching a top four finish is by no means a foregone conclusion this year, and Chelsea will need to be on their game if they are to be in with a chance come May.
With the right signings, though, it is hard to see Chelsea being anything other than serious title contenders next year. Fast forward 12 months, don’t be surprised to see Conte’s Chelsea setting the pace at the top of the table with three at the back, and a very different midfield in front of them.
Antonio Conte has never been known to accept mediocrity. Nothing other than excellence is enough for the 47-year-old.