With the season nearly at a close, there seems to be an idea in circulation that the main reason for Chelsea’s struggles has been their proficiency in front of goal. The solution that has seemingly been posed in response to this, is that the strike force is in need of reconsruction.
In particular, their record signing from last summer, 25-year-old Alvaro Morata, needs to be shipped out for, say, a 31-year-old Uruguayan who’s been operating in the French league for five years. To be fair, you could rarely accuse Edinson Cavani of being profligate in front of goal.
Regardless of the validity of such rumours, clearly such a rash move to replace Morata so early would be unwise. Has the evolution of Kevin De Bruyne and Mohamed Salah not told us anything about trusting a player’s development process?
In any case, the persisting question marks over the forward line only represent a fragment of the issues at Stamford Bridge. With the confusion surrounding the future of the manager being another significant factor (but one that has been well documented), there is also the more understated problem that exists in midfield.
Indeed, Conte’s troubles this season have been closely related to the concern in the centre of the pitch. The Italian’s frustration with the club’s transfers has been a regular theme this season, but a slightly more underplayed topic from recent windows was the business done in midfield.
The ousting of Nathaniel Chalobah for just £5m and the loaning out of Ruben Loftus-Cheek, in favour of dispensing a combined £90m on Tiemoue Bakayoko, Danny Drinkwater and Ross Barkley, now seems like one of their most egregious acts in recent transfer history.
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There was no greater indictment of this move than when England’s squad was announced for the October 2017 fixtures. Both Chalobah and Loftus-Cheek were included, while Drinkwater had been annexed and Barkley (whose summer move had fallen through on deadline day, but would be completed in January) was nowhere to be seen.
With Loftus-Cheek returning in the summer, and the contractual possibility to buy back Chalobah should he perform well for Watford next season, these mistakes can be rectified. But what may prove more difficult going forward is revamping a midfield that has already been rejigged just 10 months ago, and at a fair expense.
Even more worrying, is the simultaneous decline in form of the other members of Chelsea’s central players. With the exception of Ethan Ampadu, who hasn’t figured enough to be judged, and N’Golo Kante, who has arguably somehow improved since last year, there is nothing but depreciation.
Before his neat finish against Swansea, Cesc Fabregas had failed to record a Premier League goal or assist in 2018, and his four league assists have come against West Brom, Crystal Palace and Brighton. While he still retains the ability to pluck a sublime pass out of nowhere, evidently his overall influence is on the wane.
Considering the club’s sudden lurch towards frugality in their spending, replacing his mercurial skill and technical artistry in the near future will perhaps be the most pressing of the midfield conundrums.
To be fair, it’s not all doom and gloom. Bakayoko can surely only improve next season (he can’t get much worse), and if Loftus-Cheek is given the chance he deserves, it would give the whole club a lift. Nothing would reverse the glum prospect of no Champions League football like an academy graduate breaching the supposedly impossible bridge to first team significance.
Even so, there are far more questions than answers at the moment. Although it’s only just gone May, and rumours are rarely an accurate reflection of actual policy anyway, the current batch are all prophesying shifts in the attack. The dillema’s further back seem to have been shelved.
While it certainly wouldn’t be the biggest surprise of this summer’s window if Chelsea broke the bank to sign the man or men that would instantly solve all the above issues, that only prompts yet another question – who?