Repeat after me Chelsea fans: “This is not the summer of 2016. This is not the summer of 2016.”
It isn’t, of course, but similarities between the last time Chelsea were defending champions of the Premier League and this time are starting to crop up.
There is legitimate reason for slight concern among the Chelsea ranks as largely the same group of players who struggled drastically following their last title campaign may have to wrestle their minds to stop them from getting into a similar situation once again.
Antonio Conte was short and sharp with the media following Chelsea’s defeat to Arsenal on penalty kicks in the FA Community Shield at Wembley on Sunday. He looked like a man with a lot on his mind, and rightly so.
Conte’s debut season in the PL couldn’t have gone better with a record 30 wins from 38 games as he left the Blues to the title. Many times throughout their run to the title last season Conte revealed that nobody expected Chelsea to win the PL given their incredible collapse the season before. He was right. Everyone through it would be a two to three year rebuild and there was no pressure on the Italian coach and his staff.
Now the pressure is real and cracks have started to appear ever since the end of last season.
First the way in which his side lost the FA Cup final to Arsenal in May grated with Conte and over preseason plenty of things seem to have chipped away at him.
Diego Costa‘s impending departure seems to be making Conte uneasy with Chelsea’s top scorer not returning to preseason training and totally banished from the first team. His replacement Alvaro Morata comes with a club-record price tag but Conte has already issued a warning to the Spanish striker that he needs to work on his fitness just a few days before the new season. Star playmaker Eden Hazard is recovering from ankle surgery and will miss the start of the season.
Add in to that shaky defensive displays against Bayern Munich and Inter Milan in preseason, plus a less than a stellar performance in the Community Shield, and there are definite issues for Conte to iron out, especially with Chelsea expected to push for the UEFA Champions League this season after their return to Europe.
That in itself will provide more tests for a Chelsea side who only had to focus on domestic competitions last season with a smaller squad than their PL rivals. It perhaps explains why Conte is pushing for more transfers in each and every press conference he appears. He needs plenty of top quality additions, and fast.
Virgil Van Dijk, Serge Aurier and Danny Drinkwater have all been mentioned as potential incomings in the next few days but don’t forget that last season Conte decided to make moves for David Luiz and Marcos Alonso on deadline day so Chelsea may decide to not do any business for the opening weeks of the season.
It’s not all doom and gloom with the starting XI still packed with quality, N'Golo Kante running the show in midfield, Willian buzzing around in attack and Gary Cahill standing tall, but the preparation for Chelsea’s title defense has been far from ideal. There’s no getting around it.
With Morata not up to speed, Chelsea’s two other new signings aren’t ready either with center back Antonio Rudiger returning late in preseason after Germany’s Confederations Cup success and new holding midfielder Tiemoue Bakayoko recovering from a minor injury.
That means Conte will be down to the bare bones of his squad when the season kicks off this weekend against Burnley at Stamford Bridge with no Costa, Hazard, Bakayoko and now Nemanja Matic sold to Manchester United.
Yes, Chelsea’s business model of selling off talent at top prices when they no longer need them is admirable, plus their ability to sign talented youngsters to long-term deals and loan them out looks great but Nathaniel Chalobah leaving permanently for Watford, Nathan Ake sold to Bournemouth and Ruben Loftus-Cheek joining Crystal Palace on loan shows they were never going to be given a chance. Surely all three would have got more minutes this season given the increased number of games?
Circumstances allowed Chelsea to dominate last season and they did just that after the switch to a 3-4-3 formation defined their season.
But this season much more than formation change will define their title defense and success in Europe.
Conte not only has to contend with star players departing under a cloud (Costa) new players getting off to a slow start (Morata) and frustrations in the transfer market (Romelu Lukaku), but he must also realize that the likes of Luiz, Victor Moses and Pedro may not perform anywhere near the level we saw last season and they could return to their mean.
It’s highly unlikely the 2017-18 campaign will follow the same pattern of the 2015-16 season which saw Chelsea towards the relegation zone midway through the campaign and Jose Mourinho fired. Still, just two years removed from that nightmare it’s easy to understand why Chelsea’s fans are starting to wiggle around a little uneasily in their seat.
They’ve seen this script before and they don’t like it.