“We need to improve,” the Blues boss said. “This season without Europe [the Champions League] the squad wasn’t big but next season we must improve our squad. We are a great club and we need to compete to try to win every competition.”
Conte was right. Chelsea needed reinforcements, a fair few in truth. Only 16 players made more than ten Premier League appearances for the Blues on their way to the title, a remarkable figure born out of excellent work by the club’s medical department and a fair slice of good fortune.
But with the added strain of Champions League football, Conte needed greater depth to his squad if he was to build on Chelsea’s success in an increasingly competitive Premier League.
It’s why the 2017 summer transfer window may go down as Chelsea’s sliding doors moment. The Blues were champions and were returning to the Champions League after a conspicuous year away. They could’ve made statement signings, bringing in players that would make their starting XI stronger and their squad the envy of many.
Instead the opposite occurred. Conte, it must be said, had his part to play. He forced Diego Costa, the spearhead of the club’s title win, out the exit door. The Italian was unable to forgive and forget a January bust-up between the pair and it cost Chelsea their most influential striker since the peak years of Didier Drogba.
Replacing Costa was never going to be easy given his importance in the dressing room and his influence on the pitch. But the Blues managed to bungle a move for Romelu Lukaku, who ended up at Manchester United, and then settled on Álvaro Morata who, while a good player, was a downgrade on the man he was replacing.
That became a familiar pattern for Chelsea. Nemanja Matić was sold to United and in came the talented by very raw Tiémoué Bakayoko. No.2 goalkeeper Asmir Begović left for Bournemouth so the Blues signed Willy Caballero, who’d been released by Manchester City.
John Terry departed, too. While the club legend was no longer the gladiator of old and had been phased out by Conte last season, his influence and importance in the changing room remained huge. There was a hole that needed filling, Chelsea chose not to do so.
Chelsea had replaced like for like – if not weaker – and ended up paying £187million to do so.
Thibaut Courtois makes the cut. César Azpilcueta, too. N’Golo Kanté‘s brilliance is now a given while Eden Hazard, on his day, is the best player in the Premier League. And that is probably it – although given his development Andreas Christensen will shortly make this list.
It’s a far cry from the Chelsea side of the mid to late noughties. The first ‘Mourinho team’ which included, at differing points, Petr Čech, Ricardo Carvalho, Terry, Ashley Cole, Claude Makélélé, Michael Essien, Frank Lampard, Michael Ballack, Arjen Robben and Didier Drogba.
They were all players who would’ve walked into the majority of top European sides, and yet they were often all in the same starting XI and winning trophies on a yearly basis.
That team has been broken up over the last five years. Players have moved on, others have retired. But when they left, Chelsea struggled to replace their influence and ability.
It wasn’t due to a lack of design, however. The Blues had signed young players who, it was hoped, could replicate the lasting success of those who preceded them – Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Lukaku, Mo Salah and more.
But for reasons that are now tedious to debate, the latter trio were sold by José Mourinho during his second spell in charge at the club. The Portuguese preferring established stars over those who needed time to develop.
So in the summer of 2014, Chelsea’s last truly ambitious transfer window, they gave Mourinho what he wanted. The Blues brought in Cesc Fábregas from Barcelona and Costa and Filipe Luís from Atlético Madrid, the duo having just helped the Spanish club clinch the La Liga title in stunning fashion.
Chelsea won the Premier League at the end of that season – spend big and be rewarded. Yet the following summer Pedro was the only notable arrival. The January that followed saw Alexandre Pato sign on loan. The Blues were being unambitious and it resulted in a tenth-place finish, the lowest of the Roman Abramovich era.
And yet when Conte took over, the club failed to give him the signings he wanted. Radja Nianggolan was a Chelsea transfer target but a move wasn’t sanctioned. Leonardo Bonucci was wanted, yet was deemed too expensive. A deal for Roma’s Kostas Manolas was also not given the green light.
Chelsea won the Premier League title despite this. Conte’s tactical nous and the lack of Champions League football enabled the Blues to paper over the cracks to clinch top spot.
But those cracks opened up over the summer when deals for Lukaku, Juventus‘ Alex Sandro, Southampton’s Virgil van Dijk and Arsenal’s Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, both now at Liverpool, and Swansea City’s Fernando Llorente, now at Tottenham Hotspur, all fell through.
Have Chelsea started to penny pinch? A little, of that there is no doubt. The Blues are attempting to find value in a transfer market that has changed dramatically over the last six months.
It’s a market in which Manchester City will spend around £130million on three full-backs. Manchester United are happy to commit around £180million in fees and wages to a player, Alexis Sánchez, with just six months left on his contract. Then there is PSG spending £200million on Neymar, of course.
All the while, Chelsea are sniffing around for bargains. Signing Ross Barkley for £15million makes financial sense given his ability, but does he really improve the Chelsea side and is he any better than Ruben Loftus-Cheek? Probably not on both counts.
And the potential deals that are the sticking point, pursuing West Ham United striker Andy Carroll, a player who has never played for than 30 games a season for the Hammers due to a number of injury issues during his four-and-a-half years with the club, and Stoke City’s Peter Crouch, who’ll be 37 at the end of this month.
The supposed moves have perplexed many and have been ridiculed by others. It’s easy to understand why. These aren’t deals a club of Chelsea’s stature should be attempting to pull off, it’s that simple.
The transfer is the latest example of the Blues sleepwalking into mediocrity – they only have to look across London to see how easily that can happen.
It wasn’t so long ago that Arsenal were top of the Premier League pile. But constantly poor decisions in the transfer market, coupled with a malaise at boardroom level and the stubbornness of Arsène Wenger has seen the Gunners slip to the bottom of the top-six pack.
Chelsea would be naïve to think it couldn’t happen to them considering the fast-changing football landscape. It’s important to remain one of the big dogs in the yard and to do that asserting power over rivals is often required.
At the moment the Blues appear weak, timid and unsure of themselves. Results on the pitch have suffered, too, with the side and squad looking increasingly average.
So it’s time to get the chequebook out again, Roman, and remind European football why Chelsea should be a side that is feared.