So that's it then. The sirens are deafening, the trauma is heart-stopping. Our season has flatlined as early as the middle of March. When was the last time that happened? As with so much about this jarring, bruising season, there is a lot that is unfamiliar. Guus Hiddink has done a fantastic job in steadying the ship and avoiding relegation but even he cannot escape the inescapable. How Jose Mourinho won the title with more or less this group of players less than 12 months ago (and got sacked for it) seems almost impossible to process now. The team is as critically unbalanced and wanting physically as any I have seen for many years, and the lack of hunger from some of the more comfortable members of the side has made for some tragic viewing this term. Most want it done, anesthetized, finished.
Antonio Conte's first job as Chelsea manager is to come to the rescue, strip away the dead wood and to restore the pride and hunger. He is a no-nonsense chap who does not tolerate players coasting, not wanting to win or caring about the jersey. He upsets a lot of people and players who do not work or who do not like his methods can expect to be ruthlessly discarded. That the idea of this drastic and unpleasant course of action fills most Chelsea fans with happiness is testament to just how bad our season has been. In 28 years of supporting Chelsea over land and sea (in a very literal sense) I have never felt so little connection with the blue boys who represent us on the pitch. I struggle to form any attachment to the vast majority and honestly do not care if some of them never play for us again.
Restoring first the trust and then the loving bond between the loyal fans and the guys doing it on the pitch is Conte's second order of business.
Third is bringing in a few players, rebuilding a competitive side again which will require us to be far more effective in the transfer market than we have been of late.
Last order of business is bringing back our soul. This is such a mammoth task that one wonders whether it is even possible. Have we sacked too many Mourinhos, dismissed too many Di Matteos and exiled too many Lampards, Terrys and Coles to gain back that which has been on the wane since the late 90s in my view? Do we even have a soul any more to bring back? At our darkest periods this season it has felt that truly our heart and soul is gone, DoA. I like to think it is still there on life support and can be brought back. It is just buried under layers of bullshit, cynicism, corporate greed, laziness, trophies, sponsorship and consumerism. Very literally suffocated under reams of banknotes? Standing next to a few thousand of our loyal blues at an away game still singing and supporting with pride, I think reports of our soul's final demise are a little premature. But it is certainly in intensive care.
So how does Conte bring the sick man of the Premiership back to fighting fitness?
As with any triple heart and soul bypass operation, the fatty tissue and gristle needs to be cut out and sutured. It is a lengthy operation and one fraught with risk. The recovery period is also long. Knowing what is healthy tissue and what needs to be removed is the biggest test of any surgeon's craft and Conte will find that this is one of the biggest tests of his career so far. If Hiddink stays on his experience and steady hand may be of huge assistance to Conte as Chelsea Football Club goes under the knife.
For the goalkeepers, the biggest issue will be whether we get a big offer for Courtois. It is fair to say he has not consistently managed to recapture the form he showed at Atletico and at times this season has looked distinctly average. He is nonetheless one of Europe's elite goalkeepers. Should we receive a large offer for him I suspect he will go, as the bright lights of the Champions League (for a team that could win it) are likely to appeal. Begovic is a very capable deputy but should Thibaut go we would only need to pay about half of whatever fee we get for him to entice someone like Butland who I think would prove to be excellent value (and could end up as being every bit as good as the Belgian). Blackman will go out on loan and Amelia will be the disaster backup.
The fullback situation revolves around finding top class backup for Azpilicueta and someone to push Ivanovic. Ake coming back from loan at Watford looks likely at this point, and I suspect the club will persist with Baba Rahman who has endured a very mixed season and who continues to divide the opinions of many Chelsea fans. Todd Kane, on loan in Holland has enjoyed a very good spell and is another option but another year for him on loan looks more likely. Kenedy can also play at left back so we look well covered there.
At centreback the obvious drama is the continuing saga over John Terry's contract situation. I think he will be offered a new contract and will accept it, but will not play much. The very unfortunate Kurt Zouma has become our top centreback now and the club will sign someone else to partner him. The player to make way will be Gary Cahill one suspects, who by and large has had a poor season. He is still worth something on the transfer market so the club will cash in to make room. Andreas Christensen is enjoying one of the most successful loans in recent memory in Germany and it is tempting to bring him back, even if the club have stated recently that it is planned that he spend another year on loan. Christensen is strong, technical, mobile, can play out of defence with the ball at his feet, great in the air and is more or less the archetypal Conte central defender. If he does spend another year out on loan, we will buy two centrebacks. Stones looks out of reach now and Varane will not come now that Jose has gone. Bonucci at Juventus would be a decent signing, as would Godin at Atletico, although both are possibly a couple of years too old. Hector's loan at Reading will continue, and Djilobodji will make his move away permanent. Clarke-Salter will go on loan from the U21s as well I think.
In the middle is where it gets complicated. With Mikel with one foot out of the door in his contract negotiations and Ramires already gone we are desperately short of quality there. Matic hasn't been the same since the Burnley game last season and has been arguably our worst performer of the lot this season. He is almost certainly gone too. Oscar will surely leave having failed to live up to his early promise, and Fabregas' continued presence at the club will depend on whether Conte thinks he is versatile and tough enough to play the Pirlo sort of deep-lying playmaker. On the basis that everyone else is leaving I think Cesc will stay. Loftus-Cheek needs to figure out whether he is a box to box midfielder (and needs to improve his workrate and tackling) or a number ten (ditto) and Conte will, I suspect, share Oscar's vacated number ten slot between Loftus-Cheek and the incoming Lewis Baker. If not I think Yohan Cabaye at Palace would be a class option to bring in if reinforcements are needed and Ross Barkley is deemed too pricy. With the promising Jon Swift not ready we need two top class physical box to box midfielders. Pjanic at Roma is someone we have been linked to heavily and I suspect may come in. Pogba or Matuidi are pipedreams, Vidal too combustible but Nainggolan might be more obtainable. Imbula at Stoke and Renato Sanchez at Benfica would also fit the bill but one suspects Conte may prefer to add an Italian or British spine. My view is that Marchisio at Juventus would be a fantastic signing, even if at 30 he would offer no resale potential.
On the wings the less said about Eden Hazard the better. Call it. He is gone and has been for months. Willian must stay and the club have to do all they can to ensure he doesn't get lured away. Moses, Marin, Cuadrado and Salah will all go permanently and should generate some funds to plough back into the team. Traore and Kenedy will provide utility backups to the wings as well as might Izzy Brown should he return from loan. The issue here is that without Champions League football on offer we cannot hope to replace Hazard with anyone even close to the same level regardless of money, so Conte will need to be very clever.
Up front it is all change. Pato I don't think actually exists and is merely an imaginary figment of the anesthetic. Falcao's disastrous spell at the club will come to a merciful end and the ongoing doubts at the club over the likeable Loic Remy's reliability will see him moved on too. The newspapers are filled with stories about how Costa is unsettled and wants to leave (when they aren't slaughtering him for "crimes" real or imagined) and one suspects that, as one of Europe's most effective and prolific hitmen, Costa will attract a lot of interest in the summer. If he wants to go then he probably will. Dom Solanke hasn't enjoyed a great loan period in the Netherlands and looks likely to get a Prem loan this coming season as I do not think he has developed enough to warrant a spot in our first team yet, which is a shame. His time will come. Abraham will get a Prem loan as well and Bamford will not be coming back. Brown will occupy fourth spot up top and the hugely exciting Traore will be second or third depending on who we buy. The club will buy two strikers. Ibrahimovich would be a nervy laugh that could go either way but likely won't move to a club that cannot offer him European football. Dybala would be exciting, Sturridge a waste of time, Lukaku too expensive and not suited to how we need to play. Chicharito Hernandez much as I cannot stand him I think would do very well. Beyond that, who else is there? Let's hope Don Conte knows.
Conte teams are very technical, very hard working and press all over the pitch. They are economical with the ball and very organized at the back. Whoever we bring in needs to be hard, physical and up for the battle week in week out, perhaps over and above what Conte is used to in Italy. It remains to be seen whether he will play his sometimes-favoured back three with wingbacks system in the Premiership but my gut feeling says he has the balls to give it a go. This depends on the midfield moving the ball quickly and so this may shape who we go for in the middle in terms of new signings. Pace hasn't been an emphasis up top for us for a while because of how deep opposing deeps play against us and how little space there is to run into but Conte's system of three at the back with fast wingbacks getting up and down, with lightning fast transitions etc, may change that. Whether all this translates to more exciting attacking football remains to be seen as well but I suspect it might, even if there will undoubtedly be a lot of congested midfields scrapping out tight draws as opposing teams pack the middle and refuse to come out of their half to allow us to hit them on the break. I suppose the good news is that as a mid-table side teams will hopefully stop coming to Stamford Bridge and playing as if it was their cup final, as they are less bothered about beating us. Fewer games from not having a European campaign may also benefit us as the congestive atheroma of fixtures is eased.
Going back over my rough analysis of the likely ins and outs, if all my predictions come true the club will be permanently shedding a whopping fifteen players, with loads more going out on loan. Aside from the loanees coming back (who I think will have a big impact on how we line up next season) we need ten players. Ten. Almost a full team in fact. More or less a full transplant.
This number alone (not to mention the epic length of this piece) puts the job Conte has on his surgeon's table into sharp focus and I hope adds a cautionary note on the scale of what needs to be done. Evolution isn't going to cut it. Revolution scarcely covers it. Fifteen out and ten in plus managing the loan revolving door won't happen in one summer, even if it probably needs to. It will be a long surgery indeed. Next season will be a season of gelling and of consolidation, and we should not expect to return to the top four or to winning trophies in that period. It may not happen the season after either. Chelsea should expect a lengthy rehabilitation process in traction in outpatients before we know if the surgery has been a success.
What we are talking about here is a new team, a new ethos, a new system, a new empire and, hopefully, a new heart and soul.
It will take time. We can only hope and pray the club gives Conte the time and space to realize his potential and do not sack him if things start to look a bit dodgy as they no doubt will at some stage. Onwards and upwards, to a healthy heart and a healthier soul.
I'm off to go self-anesthetize.