Chelsea 2016-17 Season Preview: Welcome Conte
The king is dead, long live the king.
Even staunch advocates of the “three and out” Jose Mourinho conspiracy would have been hard pushed to predict his 2015-16 adventure. Fresh from a title win, the warning signs arrived quickly as in the first game of their title defence, Swansea managed to repeatedly shred Chelsea’s back line, recorded an eyebrow raising ten shots on target and came away from the bridge with a 2-2 draw, arguably unlucky not to get more.
Things then proceeded to get worse and they weren’t unlucky, just in disarray and by the time Mourinho finally collected his P45, they had lost nine of 16 and sat 16th. That he’d lost nine league matches in the previous two seasons put together showed quite how remarkable this run was. So friendly Dutch uncle Guus Hiddink was drafted in to hold the fort and the team coasted through half a season, finally finding itself idly marooned in tenth. Clearly superior than all below, and a few above, but entirely handicapped by their ludicrous autumn run and the Mourinho fug.
A marketplace in which the better candidates were either happily employed elsewhere or had already been involved at Chelsea meant that the search for a new Chelsea coach this summer was always going to be tricky. Thankfully for them, coming the the end of a natural cycle as Italian national coach was Antonio Conte, and the lu(c)re was strong enough for him to be enticed. Flavio Fusi is our resident Italian football expert here at StatsBomb, so I asked him for some comment about Conte’s style and potential in the English game:
When Conte signed for Juventus he was considered a 4-2-4 “integralist”: that was the system he fielded at Bari and Siena and everyone thought he would implement the same system with the Bianconeri, regardless of personnel. The arrivals of Stephan Lichtsteiner, Emanuele Giaccherini and Eljero Elia reinforced this opinion, but after the first few games, Conte realized that a powerhouse like Vidal, signed from Leverkusen, could not be just the reserve of Pirlo and Marchisio. Therefore, he decided to put aside “his” 4-2-4 in favour of a 4-3-3, alternatively benching one of Krasić, Elia and Giaccherini with the Chilean starting alongside the two Italian midfielders.
Juve’s new formation was much more efficient: the pressing and counterpressing displayed at the beginning of the season benefited the new midfield structure, and featured the tackling-machine Vidal in the middle of the pitch. However, Juve’s system of play under Conte was not yet settled: in late November 2011, Marchisio was banned and the Italian manager fielded his team in a 3-5-2 to counter Mazzarri’s Napoli 3-4-3. That night at San Paolo the match ended in a pyrotechnical 3-3, but above all, the system that made Conte famous in the second part of his career was defined.
This entire premise is to illustrate how flexible Conte can be and how he is a coach who tries to nurture the talent of the footballers at his disposal by adapting his system of play to maximize their output. Also, his spell at the helm of the Italian National team and Chelsea’s preseason friendlies, in which he employed 4-2-3-1, 4-4-2/4-2-4 and 4-3-3, have demonstrated his adaptability. These traits explain why, except for the purchases of Batshuayi and Kanté and the sale of Djilobodji, the new Chelsea gaffer is yet to heavily operate in the transfer market. So far he has experimented both in terms of tactics and personnel, and after the win against AC Milan, Conte himself told Chelsea TV "I think this match told me a lot about the players who keep and who can go on loan or we can sell”. We will likely see him more active in the last few weeks of the transfer window, also considering how large the Blues roster is (on paper).
There are many players whose permanence at Stamford Bridge is in doubt but there are three players in particular I would like to see under Conte’s guidance: Oscar, Kenedy and Cuadrado. I am not sure if he could succeed in a two-man midfield (Conte tried him in a double pivot together with Matic), but I think Oscar could transition in an interesting no.8. He has a high enough work-rate and the dynamism to play in that role (especially if compared to Fabregas) and his runs could be more effective starting in a deeper position, so even if Conte abolishes the attacking midfielder from the team, the Brazilian could still retain his place in the starting XI. Another atypical Brazilian who Conte could like is Kenedy. An offensive player who played as leftback under Hiddink recording decent defensive numbers, Kenedy would learn a lot under Conte and his versatility and athleticism, together with a nice technique, could come handy, especially with tactics that are still a work in progress. Conte likes these kind of players (I think of Pepe, Giaccherini and Florenzi) and Kenedy seems one of the few wingers who could adapt to an eventual 3-5-2. Finally yet importantly, Conte used to daydream of Cuadrado at Juve and apparently, the Bianconeri board failing to purchase him was one of the reasons he left. At 28 Cuadrado is in the prime of his career and last year led Serie A with 3.74 succesful dribbles per 90, so I can’t see why he should get rid of the Colombian, who surely deserves another chance in the Premier L eague after playing less than 350 minutes under Mourinho.
The transition of last year's Chelsea to Conte’s Chelsea has been and will be gradual, even if from preseason we have seen a team that tends to defend fairly deep, staying both vertically and horizontally compact and looks to attack and counterattack with width and speed, without extended spells of possession. This opens the question on how Chelsea may cope against the many opponents that would likely leave them the ball in the PL, but also Conte’s Juve used to play like this, counting on counterpressing and players' work-rate to regain as many new possessions as possible (in this scenario Kanté is really a perfect fit).
Conte has already proven himself to be a world-class coach and I can see him succeed in the Premier League, too. He is a “natural born winner” and even if there will be a physiological settling in period, I am pretty sure he will have a great impact on English football this season.
Michy Batshuayi arrives for a decent fee from Olimpique de Marseille after putting up good numbers across two seasons there. He’s a three shot a game man who recorded a rough expected goal volume of about half a goal a game in a moderate team, and at 22 happily profiles as one of the better young forwards who was available this summer. Maybe he lacks the stellar profile that Diego Costa or Fernando Torres brought on their arrival, but as the mixed return of those players have shown, the fee or the reputation don’t always guarantee results in line with preconceptions. Batshuayi is good, and hopefully gets decent chances to show it.
The overarching emphasis that Conte might bring seems to be reflected by two transfers, one in and one out. Baba Rahman departed quickly claiming that his coach told him he wanted his team to be defensive and he didn’t fit the bill and N’Golo Kante arrived for another big fee from Leicester. A twin-engined destroyer and attack starter, Kante’s arrival creates an interesting conundrum regarding the future and potential positioning of both Cesc Fabregas and Nemanja Matic. Nobody in the league made more tackles or interceptions than Kante last year and it will be interesting to see how his passing holds up with Chelsea likely to spend a deal of time in possession and dominating, no matter how cautious their manager’s philosophy demands them to be. But again, it’s a transfer that’s hard to criticise.
Beyond that so far, it’s been quiet. The defence is still aging and could probably do with reinforcement, indeed it seems inconceivable that they will not sign any defenders between here and the window closing but generally we are left looking at much the same team that both won the 2014-15 title and imploded the season after.
Much has been made of Chelsea's lack of European football this season, and it will certainly enable Conte to field his strongest team week in, week out. The identity of this team is an interesting conundrum given that Chelsea's full squad including a youth and loan army is vast and hugely talented. Conte may feel that he can pick and choose from this talent pool and it seems sure that there will be plenty more player trading to come, with loans out likely prevalent. 38 league games and a few cup fixtures will not be enough to sate the entire squad.
One of the strange things about Chelsea’s season was the split in metrics between the first half and second half of the season barely differed. In going 5-5-9 through the first half they were about a 50% shots team, so about par. In stemming the flow and going 7-9-3 in the second half, they were, well, a 50% shots team. Whether falling apart under Jose or holidaying under Guus, they didn’t manage to reliably create shot volume and only a strong conversion run during the second half (similar to that which their opponents enjoyed during the first half) enabled them to hand off their opposition.
By season’s end expected goals ranked them around Europa League levels and that divergence from a pure shot analysis can be explained by a defensive end that allowed opponents to shoot from the 4th furthest distance in the league, and a reasonably high mean expected goal rate per shot for (also 4th). These are only peeks at the team’s efficiencies, but suggest that at least in part, there are aspects of play that Conte can build upon to mount a top four challenge.
Player wise, 2015-16 was tough for a few. From 2014-15 Diego Costa lost around 0.2 per 90 off both his expected and real goal and assist rates, Eden Hazard an eye-watering 0.35 off both too. Oscar flitted in and out of the team a bit and despite a solid expected rate (pretty much consistent year on year, lost a ton in reality (minus 0.3 per 90), so tough break for him while Fabregas suffered similarly, 0.1 per 90 off his expected rate, 0.4 in reality. Willian had a small uptick, which allied with some free kick success in this company made it look like he was ripping things up. In reality, he did okay. When your entire attacking corps runs cold together, it’s probably more than just bad luck, so systemically, something about the way Chelsea fitted together was amiss, and only really lightly suggested it could be retrieved.
Hazard's decline was probably the greatest mystery. He went from being arguably the most dangerous attacker in the league to a neutered shadow. As time went on it seemed possible that he was carrying an injury and indeed, the Hazard that returned in late season and played in the Euros looked far sharper than the version that laboured through the autumn. In his general play, much was similar, right up until he hit the edge of the box, from there his impact vanished. Here we can see the upshot of this by comparing his last two seasons of chance creation:
Reputation wise, Fabragas and Matic as a midfield duo suffered significantly last year, with opposition teams seemingly able to waltz past them and land quickly onto Chelsea's centre backs, possibly the last thing that could have been predicted and the first thing that needs remedying. Again Kante is the perfect fix here but it will be interesting if Fabregas still retains a role having seen his dribbled past numbers increase again (up from around two per game to two and a half), or if much like Hiddink, Conte redeploys Jon Obi Mikel.He may well place creativity elsewhere.
To the top four?
Chelsea lost 37 points season on season from 2014-15 to 2015-16. Considering that Leicester added 40 points we can see how much of an unlikely and unexpected turnaround their demise was. They are likely to need to add a similar volume of points back on to compete for the title and even without European football, that is a huge ask. As another reference, Liverpool added 23 points from 2012-13 to the Luis Suarez fuelled title bid of 2013-14 and you feel that Chelsea would need a player to erupt in a similar fashion to Suarez in that season in order to get anywhere beyond just being in the top four mix. But this just simply isn't Conte's manner.
He won Serie A in 2011-12 going undefeated, drawing 15 games and his top scorer landed ten goals. The next season saw more wins (27), but more defeats too (5) and again his top scorer managed ten. Finally in 2013-14 his team went a ludicrous 33-3-2 and he finally had a goalscorer in Tevez who landed nineteen but the real driver for this positive work was on the defensive side--20 goals conceded, then 23 then 24. Indeed, if we look at the last six seasons across the big five European leagues, his three Juventus seasons all figure in the top ten as teams that limited their opposition to the furthest shots, and his final Juve team in 2013-14 ranks second only to Pep Guardiola's first Bayern season in a measure of non-centrality of opposition shots.
There is no way Conte doesn't fix defense first and the squad has the talent and versatility to adjust to style changes but the message will need to be learned quickly. A pragmatic view would suggest that this is a season to rebuild. No English team is likely to dominate like Juventus have in Italy this decade and merely positioning a team among contenders is a tricky enough feat in itself. Chelsea have so much to find to even get back into the mix that the top four would be a solid return. Of course, no Chelsea manager ever has the top four as their target and it is likely a bare minimum, to finish outside would once more draw pressure. It is going to be hard though: they need to improve on last season in nearly every area on the pitch and move forward significantly in shot and goal creation at both ends.
Conte is a shrewd appointment and another welcome addition to the league but title talk appears fanciful. Getting the Chelsea ship back on an even keel is imperative and this defence first outlook will give him the perfect base to bounce back into the hunt for Champions League positions. Whether he makes it will define his future.
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