The Inevitable Return of Chelsea FC, English Football's Original Big Spenders

After coming in a dismal 10th last season, it looks like Antonio Conte's side are firmly back on the up.

by Kev Kharas
23 August 2016, 1:08pm

Chelsea manager Antonio Conte celebrating with Branislav Ivanovic after the final whistle at the Chelsea - West Ham match. (Photo: Nick Potts / PA Wire/Press Association Images)

As far as redemption stories go, it's unlikely to bother any heartstrings. But the life-affirming tale of how world football's first petro-giant flirted with the mediocre before returning to their own nagging, attritional ultimacy is looking like one that, this Premier League season, just 180 minutes in, may well bear out.

Chelsea aren't an easy team to like. They never have been, really, not even when Gianfranco Zola was gambolling around the pitch for them like a confused exchange student who'd only wound up playing in West London because he'd been kidnapped by the teenage smoking gang that passed for the club's squad at the time. Zola's innocence and enthusiasm irrepressible, boundless, now that he's armed with the six English swear words taught to him by Andy Myers. Zola ruining his hairline for future generations with the help of Scott Minto's Tesco wet-look gel. Zola smiling and giving a thumbs up as he's led away in a police car while Dennis Wise's eyes glint in the darkness from a bush in the caretaker's front garden. Zola writing letters in broken English to Jody Morris in prison.

But "likeable" doesn't look like winning many trophies this season, a regression to the mean after last year's Leicester Mighty Ducks and all their dilly ding, dilly donging. So, in Saturday's 3PM kick-off at Vicarage Road, we had once again the sight of Diego Costa scoring decisive goals when he shouldn't have been on the pitch; fate favouring Gary Cahill's wild, lunging shins; Cesc Fabregas winding up defensive midfielders as easily as Adrian Durham does Arsenal fans. These, we are told by the soothsayers whose noise surrounds the Premier League constantly, are the things that champions do, and it has been easy to see in both of Chelsea's performances so far signs of that old chart-topping zeal gently stirring. Yet for all the familiarity, Antonio Conte's Chelsea side seem one teetering weirdly at the brink of transition.

Partly because of their new management, partly because of their budget, partly because of last summer's failure to add quality to the ranks, there are question marks for Chelsea all over the pitch. At the weekend, the first half was most remarkable for the joy found by Watford's midfield runners, Nordin Amrabat, Jose Holebas and Adlene "Rocket Factory" Guedioura, as they all made inroads against a Chelsea back four that still occasionally looks pissed. Not one member of the title-winning quartet seems guaranteed a future in their position under Conte: Branislav Ivanovic's marginal improvement on last season isn't, currently, enough; John Terry is old; Cahill is Cahill and Cesar Azpilicueta could find himself shunted forward into a wing-back role on the off-chance that Conte decides to revert to the back three that served him well in his stints with Juventus and the Italian national side.

In midfield, Nemanja Matic operating behind the striker in a 4-1-4-1 formation feels immoral, while none of Oscar, Willian or Cesc Fabregas seem totally endorsed by their new manager just yet, the latter linked with a move away as modern tactics seem to evolve in directions that conspire against his starting presence in a champion XI. In fairness, Fabregas looked a cut above when he came on against Watford, the interception and assist for Costa's late winner the finest piece of individual play seen in the Premier League all weekend, and you'd think N'Golo Kante, a midfielder as relentless as human suffering, would be the perfect foil for the Spaniard's miniature legs and lungs. Yet Conte demands gabber football, and Fabregas is a deep house footballer. A season-long role as super-sub seems likely.

The whole situation seems summarised by the fact it's up front where Chelsea currently seem most settled, which is saying a lot when you consider the man who plays up front for them. Where will Conte go from here? At the time of writing, there's still just over a week till deadline day, and in this most constipated of transfer windows, it makes sense that things might finally start moving as Jim White inches towards his own shitty Christmas, practising his screams in the mirror, ironing his yellow tie repeatedly, rounding up the office sweepstake money as he ponders which of his colleagues might be attacked with a sex toy this year.

Serie A centre-halves Kalidou Koulibaly and Nikola Maksimovic continue to be linked with moves to Stamford Bridge, and the hope must be that one of them is paired with Kurt Zouma as hired muscle in a back three, John Terry the ageing mafia don sequestered in-between, spraying balls around with his underrated left peg like a sub-par Leonardo Bonucci – and there was no sarcasm in that statement, just an acknowledgement that this is Leonardo Bonucci: with his ability to play the kind of pass that seems to have been waiting to fall from the skies forever; Leonardo Bonucci: his right foot tearing open the wormhole that allows the ball to fall to earth like the jet engine in Donnie Darko; Emanuele Giaccherini: waking up on a hillside in his pyjamas at dawn with a song by Echo and the Bunnymen stuck in his head – while whispers of a bid for Mario Mandzukic refuse to go away.

It's in the transfer market where the irony resides here, in this story of the rise and fall and potential rise again of the first big league oil money club to lose its way. In their early splurges, Chelsea resembled a raiding gang of Viking berserkers, running rampant with £121 million that first summer as they tore 14 players from Premier League rivals and established European giants like Real Madrid and Inter Milan, a Juan Sebastian Veron dragged away screaming here, an Alexei Smertin stolen from his children there, Claudio Ranieri still somehow finding space in his long boat for Glen Johnson and three back-up goalkeepers. The season before those 14 players arrived, Chelsea had finished 4th; last year, they finished 10th and are now faced with a significantly more competitive division. Arguably, their need for new blood is greater, yet a transfer romp to match the one seen upon Roman Abramovich's arrival seems unlikely, because everyone is rich now and the market is so saturated that no one can move in it.

So it seems likely that Conte will have to make do with the players at his disposal – the players that we know so well, that we have seen both Jekyll and Hyde sides of, who must now make hay while the media glare rests on events up in Manchester. In the latest weird twist of history's weirdest ever league, it is big-spending, high-rolling, throat-cutting Chelsea who are cast uncharacteristically, and perhaps unwittingly, as a rare lighthouse of steadiness in a division defined by sea change.


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