Four weeks, five official games (and one unofficial one), thousands of miles, and more training sessions than we can count later, plenty of questions still remain about the 2016-17 edition of Chelsea Football Club. We are just a little over a week away from the start of the Premier League season, but as Antonio Conte said at the end of the last friendly in the USA, there are still many big decisions that need to be made.
Perhaps the biggest decision of all is deciding on a formation — and not just in terms of assigning a label to it for ease of identification, but in terms of actual tactics and strategy. What we have seen work well in preseason and what seem to be the core tenets of Conte's strategies, are a compact defense (both vertically and horizontally), strong tackling, closing down relentlessly, quick ball movement, up tempo possession, and width in attack. The emphasis is on the direction and speed of passing, rather than length, with the team often looking for the home run ball that quickly switches the point of attack or releases a forward behind the defense rather than needless and useless possession. And of course even greater emphasis is placed on work-rate, determination, and all other such intangibles that Conte himself displays in abundance with his seemingly boundless energy on the touchline.
For years, both at Juventus and the Italian national team, Conte was known for the 3-5-2/3-3-4, but given the lack of Bonucci, Chiellini, and Barzagli in the Chelsea squad, that's not something that's on the cards here. Instead, Conte has been advocating for the 4-4-2/4-2-4 that he used to great effect before his move to the big time. But then, against AC Milan, with the full squad at his disposal for the first time, Chelsea instead played with a three-man midfield and a lone forward, which has been our style since the arrival of Jose Mourinho in 2004.
Conte had specifically talked about N'Golo Kanté being able to play in either a two-man or three-man midfield, and he may yet solve Chelsea's apparent midfield weakness in either configuration, but if Conte's intent on fitting in all his best pieces, perhaps the latter is the way to go. Cesc Fàbregas basically poses the same dilemma as Andrea Pirlo did back at Juventus, and a three-man midfield is the only way to include him without creating too many issues in defense.
The trouble is that a four-man defense and a three-man midfield leaves only three open spots in the lineup for attackers, two of whom are required for width and two of whom are required for the also previously stated intent to play with two center forwards. Alas, we can only line up with ten outfield players (plus the goalkeeper). Something's got to give.
So, with a week left, is Conte willing to continue to make the 4-2-4 work? Will we see a switch back to a 4-3-3 or maybe even a 4-2-3-1 sooner rather than later? This, more so than any transfer activity, is the key question facing Chelsea.
Of course, any additional transfer activity may yet alter our plans, and perhaps drastically so, though the only real key piece of business that really needs to get done is the signing of a new center back or full back. Meanwhile, questions remain over the futures of Nemanja Matić, Oscar, and several youngsters (Kenedy? Loftus-Cheek? Chalobah?) and fringe players (Moses? Cuadrado? Rémy?).
The transfer window is open through the end of the month, but the season starts in less than ten days. There's little time to waste and plenty of questions to answer. Chelsea have been working hard on all fronts over the past few weeks, but there's even more hard work ahead.