Refreshed and ready for the big kick-off, columnist and former Chelsea winger Pat Nevin is back to assess what Antonio Conte will have learnt from our pre-season campaign thus far...
It is good to be back from the holidays; rested, tanned and raring to go. Well, hopefully that is exactly how the players will feel. Actually, even though the players have been travelling I will be honest, if someone suggested pre-season training was a 'holiday’ to me when I was a player, we would have had what would euphemistically be termed ‘a robust exchange of views’. Okay, so it hasn’t been sand dunes, triple sessions and other ingenious forms of torture that were dreamt up by the management back in my time, but it still isn’t a walk in the park, or indeed a holiday at all even if Singapore and China have their attractions.
The games themselves were pretty informative and any Chelsea fan who watched them would agree that each had some good and some less impressive periods within them. The standard of the opposition was high with Arsenal, Bayern Munich and Inter Milan all on similar pre-season trajectories. The big question is, what did Antonio Conte learn? Well, he certainly made it clear that he wants a few more players in between now and the demise of the transfer window. Demise? Well I just wanted to write something other than closing or indeed slamming shut of the transfer window, just for a change.
With JT and Nathan Ake having left the club, Kurt Zouma away for the time being, and only the defensive cover of Antonio Rudiger and Andreas Christensen coming in, then it probably does look like we are at least one light in defence, especially with the extra Champions League games coming up this season.
With the unavailability of Tiemoue Bakayoko, Eden Hazard and Pedro right now, then even going further forward in the team it isn’t absolutely sorted as the season’s opening draws near. Nemanja Matic has now gone, so in short there is a bit of work to be done before everything is in place.
I suspect this is Antonio’s main consideration above everything else; making sure that the squad is big enough and settled enough in time. With transfer brinkmanship a fact of life in the game, you just have to manage it somehow even if it is not perfect. Everyone would like to get the entire squad together early but there is no doubt that there is a huge premium to be paid on the price if you try to do it that way.
Our biggest outlay was on Alvaro Morata who still has to settle in to English football, learn about his new team mate’s style, understand the intricacies of the team’s system as well as embrace a new culture in a new country. Nothing relieves the pressure more than scoring goals, and scoring important ones. I am pretty sure it will happen as soon as he has his match fitness sorted.
In the meantime all he has to do is look across the dressing room in the direction of Michy Batshuayi if he needs any help. Our Belgian striker had limited opportunities last season but having watched him a good deal even before he came to the Blues, one thing that was never in doubt was the fact that this man can score goals.
In fact, he has great difficulty stopping scoring when he gets the chances. Look at the numbers and you see what he is all about. His goals per minutes played ratio even last season was easily the best at the club and among the best in the league. Actually, at a goal for every 79 minutes he was on the field, he was well ahead of even Harry Kane last season! His current run is even more impressive and suggests very good things lie ahead.
Michy was the man on the spot to win the league for us at West Brom last season when he had just come on as sub. Taking all games other than the FA Cup final, when he only got two minutes on the field, he then went on a run of seven goals in five appearances and none of them were full 90-minute stints. The goals run was: WBA (1), Watford (1), Sunderland (2), Arsenal (2) and Bayern Munich (1). That worked out at roughly a goal every 41 minutes on the field.
Pre-season is for building things up slowly but surely so that the players can burst into the first game in peak form. It is about spotting the weaknesses and sorting them out during this period. It is also about seeing who is improving and growing within the group and it might just be that Michy will be a far bigger player for the Blues this season than last.
Plenty have come into the Premier League and found it difficult to adjust at the start and I have no doubt that Antonio knows that. One of the hardest problems to solve as a player when you come to a world class club like Chelsea is that you were top dog at your previous club, but suddenly you are surrounded by the best of the best and an automatic start is no longer assured.
You have to get your head around that, you have to adjust your psyche as well as your fitness regime and somehow you have to manage to stay patient as well as focused. Crucially, you must be ready at a moment’s notice to take your chance when it comes. Michy has shown at the tail end of last season and during pre-season now that he is making a real fist of covering all those bases. It might not feel like it, but that could well give Alvaro the time he needs to develop into our game.
After that, who knows? I have always thought that Antonio is desperate to get an option where he can play two up front, as opposed to almost always having to use a version of the 3-4-2-1 we adopted last season. It was fantastic and very successful, but teams will get wise to it and we will have to be more flexible. Michy might prove to be a big part of that solution.