Antonio Conte faces a massive challenge restoring Chelsea to greatness next season, as Derek Bilton assesses a number of problems the Italian manager must address.
Back in December Eddie Howe’s Bournemouth produced one of the results of the season as they dusted Chelsea at Stamford Bridge during the final throes of Jose Mourinho’s eventful second spell at Chelsea. The Blues exacted a degree of revenge at the weekend but as 4-1 wins go, Saturday’s at the Vitality Stadium was not the most convincing. Howe’s men had countless chances, particularly in the first half, to change the complexion of the game but failed to take them.
Yet despite that win Chelsea remain on course for their worst finish Premier League finish for 20 years. It’s been an annus horribilis for the reigning champions, who’ve been shocking at times this season. Indeed this might just be the poorest title defence since pugnacious Australian tennis star Lleyton Hewitt became the first, and so far only, men’s Wimbledon champion to suffer the ignominy of losing in the first round at SW19 as defending champion.
So just what has gone wrong at Stamford Bridge? And how will the imminent arrival of Antonio Conte change things next term?
Conte has a well earned reputation as a disciplinarian. In his homeland, he is known as a Martello – a hammer. Strong, unyielding, relentless.
Well for starters the Martello needs to get a tune out of Eden Hazard. The Belgian scored for the first time in the Premier League on Saturday since May last year. Then, rather like the 211 Hammersmith to Waterloo bus, two came at once. His startling loss of form has been one of the stories of the season. Spellbinding in 2014/15. Insipid in 2015/16.
It is clear they need a striker to compliment Diego Costa. Radamel Falcao has been an unmitigated disaster. One goal all season, the Colombian will exit the Premier League this summer with an absolute kings ransom in wages. But what price reputation? Loic Remy hasn’t been quite as poor as Falcao but he’s hardly been a revelation either down the King’s Road either.
Defensively too there is much work to be done. Old Father Time looks to be peering tentatively over John Terry’s shoulder and may whisper in his ear at any point. And if he’s not Terry should be concerned about Conte’s reputation as a man who is not afraid to make unpopular decisions. At Juventus, he moved legendary forward Alessandro Del Piero out of the club without batting an eyelid when he felt the Turin phenomenon could no longer cut the mustard. A resoluteness at the back was the cornerstone of their last title win under Mourinho. So it will be interesting to see of Conte, in a nod to Jose’s methods, reverts to the dark arts of defending so beloved of Italian sides down the years. Or whether he tries something altogether more expansive.
It’s not been all doom and gloom however. There have been some positives from a largely forgettable season. Willian looks to have truly found his feet in London and has morphed into one of European football’s more elegant midfielders. Then there’s Cesc Fabregas. The Spaniard was the star of the show against the Cherries, creating Chelsea’s first three goals and having a hand in the fourth as he moved effortlessly up to third on the all-time Premier League assists chart (only Ryan Giggs and Frank Lampard have more). He looked lethargic and ponderous earlier in the season but is definitely now back to his very best.
The incoming Conte doesn’t have the profile of Senor Mourinho. But like his Latino counterpart (who he could be going head-to-head with if those Manchester United rumours are correct) he comes with a reputation as a winner. Indeed no lesser judge than Andrea Pirlo rates Conte as the best coach he has played under. I guess then the advice to Chelsea fans is to be patient. Be patient and believe in the old Italian proverb that ‘In small barrels, there’s good wine’.