Nickname: The Blues
Home Ground: Stamford Bridge
- 6 Premier League Titles
- 8 FA Cup Titles
- 5 League Cup Titles
- 1 UEFA Champions League Title
- 2 Cup Winners’ Cup Titles
- 1 UEFA Europa League Title
- 1 UEFA Super Cup Title
Manager: Maurizio Sarri
What a difference a year makes! One year ago, Chelsea were still basking in the glory of their English Premier League title won in the 2016/17 season. Fast forward a year and Chelsea are in turmoil having finished 5th in the English Premier League and fired their head coach Antonio Conte.
With the new manager in charge, Maurizio Sarri, Chelsea are on the crossroads. Do they try to keep the roster in place and with some additions try to challenge for the English Premier League title or do they tear it apart and rebuild for the future? One thing is clear, there is not a lot of time left before the beginning of the season and too many questions to answer.
I have prepared an overview of main Chelsea storylines and a short preview for the upcoming English Premier League season.
Previous Season Summary
2017/18 English Premier League season is the one Chelsea fans would like to forget. Coming off a dominating title run a year before, Chelsea has managed to completely disintegrate and finish 5th in the Premier League, losing their head coach Antonio Conte and out of the UEFA Champions League for the upcoming season.
Despite the shocking 2-3 defeat on opening day at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea have started the season in solid form, winning 4 out of their first 6 matches and drawing 0-0 with cross-town rivals Arsenal. At that time, Chelsea were 3rd in the Premier League rankings.
What followed were two consecutive defeats, one at the hand of their rivals Manchester City 0-1 at Stamford Bridge and second to the scrappy underdog Crystal Palace 2-1 at Selhurst Park. These defeats caused a lot of damage, as Chelsea slowly began to slip away from the English Premier League title challenge.
Chelsea did go on a run of 8 wins in the next 10 games, climbing back into contention and the 3rd place in the English Premier League. Still, that was as far as they could go as the key competitors such as Manchester City and Manchester United kept on playing well.
The end of January brought a serious slump in form for Chelsea, as they have lost 5 out of their next 7 games. To make the matters even worse, Chelsea has lost games to 3 direct title rivals, 2-1 vs Manchester United, 1-0 vs Manchester City and 1-3 vs Tottenham Hotspurs. This pretty much signaled the end of Chelsea’s title challenge.
Chelsea’s form did improve towards the end of the season but still, a UEFA Champions League qualifying spot slipped away and they finished 6th in the English Premier League. The only thing that saved their season from being a complete disaster was the FA Cup Trophy, which they have won defeating Manchester United 1-0 at Wembley.
Poor shoving in the English Premier League and the loss of UEFA Champions League qualification for the next season meant the end of Antonio Conte’s reign as Chelsea’s manager. His journey from the savior and Premier League title in his maiden season to his sacking in his second season is the proof how soccer can be a ruthless business sometimes.
Key Additions and Departures
Chelsea delayed their decision to fire Antonio Conte for quite some time, officially announcing his replacement Maurizio Sarri after the 2018 World Cup in Russia, almost two full months after the end of the English Premier League season.
This, in turn, has caused them to be late to the transfer market and, so far, they have failed to make drastic moves that might be needed to get the squad on the right track and back in contention for the English Premier League title in 2018/19 season.
The only other addition that Chelsea has made is the free transfer signing of Robert Green, as a backup goalkeeper option. The rest of the additions to the squad are mostly connected to the expiring loan contracts for players like midfielder Kennedy who was loaned to Newcastle last season, as well as the Belgian striker Michy Batshuayi who was on loan at Borussia Dortmund.
A similar situation can be seen with departures, as only backup goalkeeper Matej Delac was let go on a free transfer, where he ultimately joined the Danish side AC Horsens. The rest of the movements mainly concern youth and backup players who were loaned out.
Again, it is extremely important to note that Maurizio Sarri has just arrived at Stamford Bridge and didn’t have enough time to put together a transfer strategy with his team for the upcoming English Premier League season. So, we can expect Chelsea to be extremely active in the transfer market until the fall transfer deadline, which is on September 1st, 2018.
This at the same time means that we don’t know how the roster will look like once Sarri is done adding and subtracting players to it. Several Chelsea player had magnificent World Cup campaigns, such as Courtois and Hazard for Belgium, Kante and Giroud for France and Willian for Brazil. All of them have generated a huge amount of interest from major clubs across Europe.
Hazard is being tipped as the key player to replace Cristiano Ronaldo at Real Madrid, whose pockets are as deep as they can get. Chelsea has set the asking price at GBP 200 million as a deterrent to other major clubs in trying to buy him.
There are also rumors connecting Willian to Barcelona and Manchester United, Courtois to Real Madrid and Alvaro Morata to AC Milan. All these potential moves might leave Chelsea’s roster in ruins and ready for the rebuild. It is still an unknown what Maurizio Sarri will decide to do with his squad.
If they are able to keep their squad intact and strengthen it, Chelsea might be able to seriously contend for the English Premier League title in the upcoming season. After all, they have a roster of world-class players that have just demonstrated their skill at the biggest stage at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
The key area that needs attention is forward/striker, as Chelsea failed to score at the pace that the rest of the Big 6 teams were scoring. The duo of Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud have proven over the course of their career to be extremely unreliable at the highest level. There are rumors that Sarri is interested in Juventus’ Gonzalo Higuain, who might be on the outs.
The secondary need is for a creative midfielder to spearhead attacks, pass into space for Willian and Hazard and connect all 3 phases in the formation. Cesc Fabregas used to play this role, but his efficiency has suffered a lot due to advanced age and a number of injuries he has gone through. A creative attacking midfielder should be on the list of priorities for Chelsea this offseason.
It will all come down to which players Sarri decides to keep this season. A major revamp of the roster is not out of the question, depending what Chelsea might be able to get for their main stars from Real, Barcelona, Juventus, Manchester United and others.
Style of Play
Maurizio Sarri has long drawn comparisons to Pep Guardiola and his style of play. The term Sarri-Ball refers to soccer tactics focused on keeping the possession at all costs and generating attacking moves by short quick passes and constant movement of the players forward. It is essentially a vertical modification of tiki-taka that Guardiola championed at Barcelona.
Sarri prefers to play in a 4-3-3 formation where the defensive line plays extremely high and is constantly pressuring the opponents, trying to regain possession as quickly as possible. In the midfield, three players have decidedly specific roles in Sarri’s system.
The second midfielder is a box-to-box dynamo in the center field that covers immense distance during the game. He dictates the tempo of the game with constant movement and aggressive playing style in duels with other players.
The third midfielder is the most advanced one, whose role is to provide key passes into space for the three forwards or lead the attacking moves himself by running into space and looking for opportunities to score.
The forwards need to possess tremendous pace on the wings, while the central forward/striker has to be mobile and technically skilled so he can participate in a variety of offensive moves. Constant overlapping of forwards and midfielders while the ball keeps moving, has been the staple of Sarri-Ball.
It remains to be seen how Chelsea will adapt to Sarri’s style of play, as the roster might not have the players that can answer the bell in the new system. The first obvious thing is the issue of a central forward/striker in the 4-3-3 formation. Sarri prefers mobile and versatile forwards that are adept at a number of things. Something that Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud are definitely not. They are far too slow for Sarri’s system.
In the midfield and on the wings, the situation is much better. Hazard and Willian are all-world players on the flanks and would be a perfect fit for Sarri’s system as wide forwards. They both have great pace, can dribble, shoot and pass at a high level.
The central midfield is also taking shape with the transfer of Jorginho from Napoli, who was brought in to help Sarri introduce his system to the players at Chelsea. Jorginho is expected to take the role of the defensive midfielder that will connect Chelsea’s defense with the attack-minded midfield. The other two spots are reserved for N’Golo Kante who will take on the role of the box-to-box dynamo and most probably Ross Barkley if he is fully fit.
Cesc Fabregas might be a better passer at the position, but Barkley would be far more useful in Sarri’s system, as he can cover more ground, defend and participate in offensive movement at a high level. A transfer at the position is also not out of the question.
The key issue with roster also might be at the center back spot. Captain Gary Cahill is a solid player but might feel like a fish out of the water in Sarri’s system, since it demands extremely mobile center backs that are able to pressure all game and mover around the pitch at easy, something that is not exactly Cahill’s strength. The rest of the defense seems well suited to Sarri’s tactics.
Ultimately, the final version of Chelsea’s roster will determine how Sarri will line up and whether he will be successful in transferring his system from Napoli to Chelsea.
2018/19 Season Expectations and Predictions
There are too many unknown factors in the equation that is Chelsea’s 2018/19 English Premier League season. Will Chelsea be able to keep their stars this summer or will their replacements be good enough for Chelsea to contend? These are the questions that we cannot answer at this moment.
On paper, Chelsea has a roster that should cause problems to most of the clubs of the Big 6, whose aim is to win the English Premier League title. How the pieces will work together once the roster is complete is another story.
I will err on the side of caution and say that Chelsea will have a transition year in Sarri’s first season at the helm. The Blues will not be able to mount a serious title challenge out of the gate and ultimately will finish 5th and miss out on UEFA Champions League soccer once again as they rebuild their squad for the future.