The received wisdom is that due to Champions League commitments, Chelsea need a bigger squad than they had last season.
It’s undoubtedly true that Chelsea benefitted from fewer games last year. No European football wasn’t the only reason why they were the best team in the country – they were imperious for most of the season, and sprung the tactical surprise that everyone is still talking about. They’ve had a lasting impact on English football, at least in the short-to-medium term. But fewer games was certainly a help.
But perhaps too much is being made of that.
This summer, Chelsea shipped out quite a few players in ways that haven’t sat well with everybody – and possibly not even Antonio Conte himself. Young players with bright futures like Nathaniel Chalobah and Nathan Ake were allowed to leave on permanent deals, whilst genuinely top notch first-teamers like Diego Costa and Nemanja Matic were either sold or simply told they were surplus to requirements.
To make matters worse, the Serbian wasn’t just sold, but was sold to Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United, who look like the real deal so far this season with him in the side.
When something becomes ingrained into public opinion, trivial things begin to stick when you see them. It was clear that Chelsea would have more games this season and therefore needed a bigger squad, and when they started selling players, things didn’t look to be going in the right direction. And so when the programme for the Community Shield game against Arsenal in August printed the squad list on the back, it was a stunningly visual reminder of what we all thought.
This the squad size of both Arsenal and Chelsea from the back of the Community Shield programme… pic.twitter.com/yWvyCO06RU
— Calum (@CalArsenal) August 17, 2017
But this idea that Chelsea’s lack of European football last season means they have to add tonnes of extra players this season in order to cope is probably overblown.
Whilst it’s true that some extra rotation will be needed, it’s not the case that Conte’s squad is wafer thin. He likes a small group to work with, and he has that, but he also has the ability to rotate when necessary.
It’s not as if the Blues are new to this European football lark. They are not a team with no experience of the extra games and travelling it brings, nor are they even particularly out of practice. Last year was the first season since 1996/97 in which Chelsea had no European football, and so things haven’t really changed all that much with just one year out. Their squad was still big enough for Europe last season – or at least the same sort of size as it was the previous season when they aimed to retain the Premier League title and challenge in the Champions League. They didn’t sell a host of players just because they weren’t in Europe. They were still a club geared up to play in Champions League, and they knew they were only sitting one campaign out.
What that means for the Blues this season is that, despite the fact their squad is probably still smaller than a number of others in the top six, they certainly aren’t threadbare. Indeed, it would be almost impossible for the English champions, in this market and with this much money floating around, to be short on players. It would be downright irresponsible not to have enough – and that would be too strong an accusation to level at Chelsea this summer.
After missing out on so many supposed transfer targets this summer, the likes of Ross Barkley, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Fernando Llorente, there may be a question mark around the quality of player that has been brought in. Davide Zappacosta and Tiemoue Bakayoko are relative unknowns on these shores. Danny Drinkwater feels like a more underwhelming signing than a title-winning midfielder who partnered N’Golo Kante in the most unlikely footballing upset of our time should do. And Alvaro Morata still has to prove that he can score goals when he’s the main striker rather than a supporting act.
But after last year, and deadline day moves for Marcos Alonso and David Luiz, Antonio Conte has surely earned the right to some open-mindedness about his summer business. His considered signings paid off in spectacular fashion last season, and this year, they look to be purchases moulded in a similar manner.
Extra games this season will surely add to the difficulty level for Conte, but the hype around the squad and its size is too much. And more than anything else, last season should be a warning to everyone not to second guess the Chelsea manager.