Premier League 2017-18 chelsea No5

Chelsea manager has said he wants to avoid a Mourinho-style second season following Chelsea’s title triumph, something he should manage to achieve

Mere mention of a title defence has been enough to drain the optimism from Chelsea managers of the recent past. It is as if a malaise creeps in unnoticed with the hangover from all the ticker-taped celebrations, indecision bordering on complacency gripping those from dug-out to boardroom over the subsequent summer.
Inertia chokes plans for recruitment while players who had previously been focused in pursuit of the Premier League suddenly struggle for motivation when asked to repeat the feat. Carlo Ancelotti experienced it in 2010. José Mourinho followed suit five years later. Antonio Conte is braced to be next.
The theory, of course, is far too simplistic. There were contributing factors when it came to both those spluttering follow-up campaigns and Chelsea, as a club used to enjoying regular success, were scarred by their mid-table finish last year in particular. Those on high vowed such underachievement would never be tolerated again.
So the trials and tribulations endured this summer feel all the more remarkable: from the messy attempts to sever ties with Diego Costa, to the frustrations expressed by the management at the club’s failure to secure Romelu Lukaku; from the hierarchy’s laboured efforts to add to the Italian’s options before a return to the Champions League, to a rather chaotic pre-season schedule. Conte has even spoken of wanting to “avoid the Mourinho season”.
The manager may have sported that familiar disarming smile from Beijing to Singapore but planning for the campaign ahead has been far from straightforward.
There have been tensions behind the scenes. The head coach did finally put pen to paper on a new two-year contract in July but it was not the extension first mooted in May before the FA Cup final. Club and manager apparently did not feel the need to prolong beyond the original expiry in 2019, with the Italian content to be rewarded with a deal, believed to be the highest awarded in Chelsea’s history, more befitting one of the division’s elite coaches while not over-committing his future to life in England.
In maintaining the original length of the arrangement perhaps the hierarchy, too, demonstrated lessons have been learned, not least from the hefty deal delivered to Mourinho in the autumn of 2015 while that particular title defence was showing the first signs of unravelling. The issue of an extension can be revisited, if necessary, next summer depending on how well this team do, or how comfortably Conte’s young family settle into their new life in Cobham.
Yet, even over those travels through east Asia, the positive soundbites offered up by the manager have always been issued with a warning. His wariness echoes the caution expressed on a few occasions towards the end of last season once it became clear that Tottenham Hotspur were never really going to eat sufficiently into Chelsea’s lead at the top of the division and deny them their title.
Winning a Premier League without European football cluttering up the schedule is one thing. Competing for silverware on four fronts is quite another. “I repeat, we are a great club but we are in a moment where we can’t make a mistake because it’s very dangerous,” he said in Singapore. “We don’t have a lot of space to make mistakes. We need to improve and increase our squad to be something important for the present, and also for our future.”
That quest to add greater quality to the squad is ongoing, and will most likely remain so until the deadline passes. To put the tightness of Chelsea’s unit into proper context, 16 outfield players started for Conte in the Premier League last season before the penultimate match, a chaotic 4-3 win over Watford once the championship had been claimed and there was scope for a bit of experimentation.
Two of those starters – Oscar and Branislav Ivanovic – were sold in January. Now, before a more onerous fixture list, Chelsea have seen John Terry, Nemanja Matic, Nathaniel Chalobah and Nathan Aké leave, with Costa to follow suit, and loaned out Kurt Zouma and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, both part of the first-team squad last year. Conte clearly has little inclination to throw any promising academy graduates into the senior setup, as his recent criticisms of a lack of “patience” showed. He remains of the belief that they will benefit from time either on loan or training alongside first-teamers.
However, throw in the fact that Eden Hazard and Tiemoué Bakayoko are recovering from surgery, which will blunt their impact at the start of the season, and the Italian’s consternation at fragile options feels more understandable.


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