Incoming Chelsea manager Antonio Conte has a task on his hands. Having been acquitted of ‘doing nothing to prevent match-fixing’ at previous club Siena, the Italian has agreed to take the reigns of one of London’s most esteemed clubs on a three-year contract immediately after he leads Italy to Euro 2016.
Conte is tasked with the unenviable job of rejuvenating fallen champions, boosting broken egos and scoping a squad which is both too old and too young. Easy it will not be and word has it that Roman Abramovich, the club’s brooding owner, may not have the funds to support a wholesale regeneration of a team designed to compete in the highest echelons of club football.
When Conte steps through the Cobham front doors in mid-July, he must be ready to face the personalities, whose bristling and bustling has caused damaging friction in the past. Despite the departure of several big names, there are still a number of people who the Italian must successfully navigate to prosper in South-West London.
Primary among them is Chelsea’s controversial technical director Michael Emenalo. The Nigerian has resided over Chelsea’s transfer policy since 2011 and has thus been responsible for a number of peculiar decisions, including the decision to sell then 22 year-old Kevin De Bruyne for £18 million in 2014 before bringing in Monaco’s misfiring striker Radamel Falcao a year later on loan. Emenalo did not exactly see eye to eye with Jose Mourinho [the 50 year-old said that there had been a ‘palpable discord between players and manager’ upon Mourinho’s sacking]and Conte is famously similar to Chelsea’s former boss in his temperament and iron-grip attitude to management.
John Terry represents another pending issue for the Italian, but also the club as a whole. Arguably Chelsea’s most important player and captain over their 111 year history, the 35 year old was offered a new one year contract last week, but the particularities of the offer on the table may not be to Terry’s liking. The former England international has the backing of both the dressing room and the stands and Conte will want Terry involved in his plans for next year. This is the Italian’s first foray into the murky waters of English football and he needs a steady hand on the tiller and a cohort of experience to give him a nudge in the right direction.
Despite Terry’s importance to the ethos of the club, Chelsea’s frailties at the back have been brutally exposed on a number of occasions this season, and often by teams who should not be causing incumbent champions problems. Kurt Zouma is a promising young defender, but the injury sustained against Manchester United back in January ruled him out of the run-in. The Frenchman will be back next year, but Conte need not look far for inspiration at the back. Nathan Ake has had a sound year at Watford and is quickly developing into a mature Premier League defender. Despite having another year on his loan contract with Borussia Mönchengladbach, Danish centre-back Andreas Christensen is attracting attention from several of Europe’s elite, whilst Jake Clarke-Salter captained Chelsea’s all-conquering U-18 team to domestic and continental success.
The rumours permeating the first-team squad are not of incoming, but outgoing as several of Chelsea’s stars look to continue their development with Champions League football. Although Conte will be looking to take the club straight back to Europe’s top table, players such as Thibaut Courtois, Diego Costa and 2015 PFA Player of the Year Eden Hazard may begin to eye opportunities elsewhere. Hazard has previously admitted that ‘it would be difficult to say no to PSG’ whilst the club’s 24 year old shot-stopper Courtois is being watched by scouts from Real Madrid. It would not be a surprise to see at least one of Chelsea’s Belgium contingent leave the club, with Courtois currently favourite after Madrid’s botched attempt to sign United goalkeeper David De Gea last season.
If so, Conte must look for replacements. The club have been linked with Southampton’s Fraser Forster whilst the Italian has reportedly identified Roma’s Radja Nainggolan and Chilean powerhouse Arturo Vidal as top targets to fill the breach in midfield. Chelsea’s international army of players plying their trade in loan deals also gives Conte an arsenal to tap into. Mario Pasalic has been impressive on loan at Monaco while Lewis Baker and Isaiah Brown are two promising graduates from the club’s burgeoning academy. It remains to be seen whether the likes of Vidal, who seems a slightly more feasible target after Bayern’s purchase of midfielder Renato Sanches, and Nainggolan would be tempted by the lack of Champions League football.
Meanwhile, Diego Costa’s second season at Chelsea has not quite scaled the lofty heights that his opening cameo reached, but the Spanish striker has still scored 12 goals. If Chelsea decide to sell, there are plenty of options – Bertrand Traore has had a promising season, whilst England U-19 international Tammy Abraham has been scoring goals for fun in the academy set-up. Dominic Solanke continues to stall over contract demands but his versatility and rate of striking at every level he has played make him an attractive prospect for the future. Gonzalo Higuan is a name pertinently linked with Chelsea but the striker’s lack of aggression does not bracket him as an ideal replacement for the bruising Costa.
Across the board, Conte has work to do. Trim the fat, increase the stock and improve the yield. Simple in theory, but far more difficult in practice, particularly when considering the politics of professional football. It is inconceivable to think that Chelsea will be cut adrift for longer than a season, but Conte must hit the ground running to ensure his debut season does not consolidate the club’s current mid-table ranking – or worse.