On Saturday I was lucky enough to commentate on Chelsea’s friendly with Real Madrid, which played out in front of more than one hundred thousand people at the Michigan Stadium, the second largest such venue in the world (Pyongyang in North Korea boasts the biggest, in case you were wondering.) trailing 3-0 at half time, Chelsea eventually added some respectability to the score line thanks to two late goals from Eden Hazard.
Whilst results and even performances in pre-season matches should be taken with a bucketful of salt, there are patterns beginning to form in Antonio Conte’s planning, now 4 games into his Chelsea career.
One of the most prominent of the Italian’s ideas seems to be to play with a 4-4-2 or 4-2-4 formation. Such a tactic places great emphasis on the two central midfielders. It’s probably no coincidence then, that Chelsea are currently well stocked in that department. In fact there are at least six players for Conte to choose from at the heart of his midfield. Clearly six into two doesn’t go, so who is most likely to find themselves in the middle of the Stamford Bridge pitch when Chelsea open their season against West Ham two weeks on Monday?
Surely the first name Conte’s scribbles in his midfield. Kante hasn’t swapped the champions for a team who finished 10th just to sit on the bench. The diminutive Frenchman will give Chelsea’s midfield the bite it was lacking last season. As Leicester roared to the title, Kante was at the heart of their success, making more tackles (175 in total) and interceptions (156) than any other Premier League player – and that after failing to start any of the first three games of the season. Kante has reportedly cost Chelsea thirty million pounds. That fee, coupled with the quality he showed last term means it’s surely a case of Kante plus one in the key games for Chelsea
Fabregas would seem the most likely player to pair up with Kante next term. In a reversal of his usual trajectory, Fabregas enjoyed a much better second half to last season than first. Overall, it was still a disappointing campaign compared to the title winning season of 2014/15 when the Spaniard proved himself the Premier League’s assist king. Fabregas and Kante ought to offer a nice blend of style and substance as a pair but Conte will have been alarmed by Fabregas dismissal for a reckless lunge in last week’s friendly win against Liverpool. Work rate will be key for any player wishing to be a regular in Conte’s Chelsea, that’s something Fabregas will have to make sure he’s on top of too.
Oscar started in central midfield alongside Nemanja Matic against Real Madrid at the weekend. A much better tackler than given credit for, this might end up being the Brazilian’s natural home. Even he would admit he’s flattered to deceive during his time in England. A change of position could be his best chance of salvaging his Chelsea career.
John Mikel Obi
On the face of it, Mikel looks the odd man out of this six. The other five contenders arguably have more components to their game or are younger and more adaptable. Mikel probably hasn’t helped his cause by going off to the Olympics with Nigeria either. Whilst he appears expendable, it’s worth bearing in mind that Mikel has been at Chelsea for ten years and it that time has worked under nine different coaches (as well as two spells under Jose Mourinho.) with every new boss it has seemed as though Mikel was heading for the exit door, only for him to prove his worth. Clearly a good influence on the squad, Conte may decide to keep him around for his experience, even if his game time is limited.
It seemed Matic would be leaving Chelsea this summer after a truly miserable 2015/16 campaign which saw the Serb look a shadow of the player who had so dominated midfields in Chelsea’s title winning season. It appears though that there’s been a change of heart from both player and club. Speaking during the Blues tour of America, Conte said of Matic:
“He is not for sale and I know with work he can become a fantastic midfielder, one of the best in the world, He is a very important player for me, he is very important in my idea of football”
Matic himself admitted to being encouraged by the praise, perhaps something he’s not used to after suffering the indignity of being subbed off after coming off the bench last season. Whether Conte is just trying to inflate Matic’s price ahead of a move (Juventus and Real Madrid have been linked) remains to be seen but Matic certainly looks more likely to stay in London now than he did a few weeks ago.
Finally we come to the wildcard selection. Nathaniel Chalobah joined Chelsea as a ten year old and signed a new five year contract in 2013. Despite this he has still never kicked a ball in anger in a competitive first team game for the Blues. Loans at Watford, Nottingham Forest, Middlesbrough, Burnley, Reading and Napoli have been completed with various levels of success but at the age of 21 the time is surely coming for Chelsea to make a decision on the England Under 21 international. He has performed superbly for Conte so far in preseason, scoring against Wolfsberger and providing a Pirlo like assist for Eden Hazard’s first goal against Madrid. Chalobah will likely be happier to be a squad player than some of the other names on this list. That should help his cause. Perhaps 2016 will be the year when he finally makes his Chelsea bow and gets a once promising career back on track.