Not since Manchester United in 2008-09 has a champion successfully defended the Premier League title. Chelsea’s success ended a run of four different champions in four seasons–something that hadn’t happened for 23 years–but the era of the domination of one club seems, for now, to be over. Perhaps English football will develop a superclub that exercises the same hegemony as Bayern Munich does in Germany, Juventus does in Italy or the Real Madrid-Barcelona duopoly does in Spain, but for now the elite numbers six and the recent tendency has been for a champion, sated with additional demands, to slip back into the pack the following season.
How, then, does Chelsea maintain the level it has achieved this season?
It’s not a coincidence that the last two league champions, Chelsea and Leicester, have both been unburdened by European football. Liverpool in 2013-14, when it came second, also demonstrated the benefits of not playing two games a week. It’s not just about fatigue; it’s also about time.
If a team plays one game a week, its schedule runs roughly: game, recovery, training, training, training, training, preparation, game. If it plays two games a week, it becomes: game, recovery, training, preparation, game, recovery, preparation, game. Playing half the number of games, in other words, means four times as much full training. For managers obsessed by positional work, as Antonio Conte is, that is vital time. Necessarily, next season his plans will not be as detailed, his players not as well-drilled, as they were this season.
But that’s only part of the problem. Conte this season has stuck to the same core of players. Sometimes Cesc Fabregas or Willian have come in, but essentially he’s picked the same 11 players week after week–as Claudio Ranieri did last season. The 11 regular starters have all made at least 26 starts this season while eight players have made more than 30 starts. Players who play together regularly naturally have a far better understanding of one another’s games; the positional work becomes more instinctive. Once a manager has to rotate his squad, those bonds necessarily become harder to form. The impact of playing in the Champions League is thus exponential, and weighing the competing demands fatigue and familiarity a difficult balancing act.
Conte, of course, has had to deal with that before, but guiding Juventus through an Italian season, with all its advantages in terms of resources, is not the same as guiding a club through a Premier League season. There will have to be acquisitions–and that’s where his use of the same 11 players game after game this season becomes an issue. What happens when the unity of that core is diluted?
The most pressing concern is at center forward. It seems all but certain that Diego Costa will leave. He is the subject of a reported £76 million bid from the Chinese Super League club Tianjian Quanjian and was apparently keen to move there in January, which led to him missing the away win at Leicester. It’s widely believed that an agreement was reached then that if he saw out the rest of the season he would be allowed to leave in the summer for a contract rumored to be worth more than £25 million a year.
In that game at King Power Stadium, Conte played Eden Hazard as a false nine, one of a number of hints that he isn’t convinced by Michy Batshuayi as a replacement–no matter the importance of his title-clinching goal at West Brom. Unless the false nine is to become a regular ploy, that probably means Chelsea needs two out-and-out strikers in the summer. They will have the money, but there aren’t many players of a similar profile to Diego Costa: tough, aggressive, able to hold the ball up and capable of generating chances almost from nothing. Romelu Lukaku has been strongly linked with a return to Chelsea and is probably the best available candidate within the Premier League, but there remain questions about his capacity to score goals against the best defenses.
Real Madrid forward Alvaro Morata is also understood to be a target and may be tempted by the prospect of more regular first-team minutes at Stamford Bridge than he has at the Bernabeu.
With Kurt Zouma’s recovery after his knee injury ongoing, there is probably need also of another center back. It’s expected that Virgil van Dijk will leave Southampton this summer and his combination of power and passing ability would surely interest Chelsea. Similarly, there is need for cover in the wingback positions. Chelsea’s worst performance of the season was probably the defeat at Manchester United when Marcos Alonso was unavailable, and, given the demands on those positions, there is need of a potential replacement on both sides–particularly given Victor Moses can be caught out defensively. If Kyle Walker leaves Tottenham, and Spurs could be persuaded to sell to a rival, he would be an obvious option on the right.
To compete both in Europe and the Premier League Chelsea probably needs another half-dozen players, but that’s only part of the issue. Identifying targets is one thing; integrating them into such a close-knit squad is something else.