In the wake of Mourinho’s second sacking, now a little over two years ago, Chelsea sounded out a certain Pep Guardiola, then still at Bayern, as a potential replacement (and not for the first time). Guardiola, who would not long after announce that he was leaving for Manchester City, supposedly told Abramovich & Co to take a hike because the squad was beyond hope and needed something like “10 new players” to have any chance of competing once again. This viewpoint was shared by others candidates, too, like Diego Simeone and Guus Hiddink, with the latter appropriately enough guiding the team to a 10th place finish that season.
“There is a lot of work to be done for the near future. The team is not in a great state, the squad is ready for rebuilding. So in this coming period it is also about working towards the future.”
-Guus Hiddink; December 2015
So perhaps Antonio Conte is not far off when he calls the title win in the following season a “miracle”. After all, he worked largely with the same squad, with only three new additions (Kanté, David Luiz, Alonso) rather than the ten supposedly needed — four, if we want to be generous and include Michy Batshuayi as well.
Five more players joined last summer (Morata, Bakayoko, Rudiger, Zappacosta, Drinkwater) with three more arriving last month to flesh out the squad’s depth. The rebuilding is now in full swing, and as is often the case with team’s that are rebuilding, the results are not quite up to expectations (especially last year’s heightened expectations).
“I think now we must be realistic and understand what our level is. Now we have to struggle to fight for a Champions League place. That is the top [priority]. We must be strong to accept this type of situation.”
But as Conte has repeatedly said since the summer, we must not lose sight of the longer-term goal, of building “something important” for the future. We knew this season will be a bit of a struggle, with record spending elsewhere in the top six and Chelsea emphasizing quantity over quality to stay competitive across multiple competitions.
“We are in a moment that we have to create a basis. We have to build something important. To do this, you must have 15 or 16 players. In the summer we changed eight players. That means you don’t have a basis, a great foundation. We must have great patience to understand the moment.
”We lost strong, experienced players in the last few years, so we must have patience to understand that, now, we have to appreciate the moment, be realistic, create a basis and then build something important to face big challenges with the other teams.”
But if we do stay patient, we now have a solid base to work from. Players such as Morata and Bakayoko may not be the finished products, but with proper coaching should become ones in due course. There is a great core of players in or near their prime (Hazard, Kanté, Azpilicueta, Courtois), augmented by up-and-coming stars (the aforementioned duo, Christensen), and plenty of good depth plus academy hopefuls.
There is an opportunity this summer to switch transfer strategies and concentrate on quality rather than quantity. According to Conte, who remains quite adamant that he will see this transition through with the Blues, we’re only two-three players away.
“In the future, if there is the possibility [to strengthen], you have to try to buy only two or three players -- not eight players. Don’t forget, this summer we brought in eight players and spent a lot less than other teams who bought only two or three.”
-Antonio Conte; source: ESPN
It’s an idea certainly not foreign to most fans and observers, spending more on less rather than less on more, buying the cream of the crop and using the existing depth as well as the academy and the loan army to augment as needed. Granted, this plan also requires a leap of faith and plenty of trust from all corners of the organization, from the coach playing the depth, to the club (and, perhaps more so, the fans) staying patient and understanding the situation, especially the rest of this season.
With several players approaching or already in their 30s — Cahill, David Luiz, Pedro, Fabregas, Willian — there is an easy opportunity to put this plan into motion.
Can we do it? History would suggest that the coach who started the transition won’t be the same one who finishes it. But maybe we can have another miracle.
“Don’t forget the history of this club. It’s always the same. Not only with me. Also with other coaches. I understand this, and it’s normal.”
”The players are used to this speculation. The speculation has been on this season, and many players answered this question, that ‘we don’t want to repeat what happened in the past’. But it’s normal. The history is this. We can’t change the history of the club.”
-Antonio Conte; source: FourFourTwo
But we can make new history!