After dismissing Huddersfield Town 3-0 last weekend, Chelsea welcome Arsenal to Stamford Bridge for their opening home fixture of the season. In advance of Arsenal’s short bus trip across town, I chatted with Sid (wxwax) of SBN’s Chelsea blog We Ain’t Got No History about Chelsea’s season so far, the summer they had, and all that good stuff. I answered his questions about Arsenal as well; head over to WAGNH to check out that side of our conversation.
TSF: Since it’s only the second week of the season, the statute of limitations on this question hasn’t expired yet - how was Chelsea’s summer, business-wise? Any major holes left unfilled?
WAGNH: Stressful, chaotic-feeling, last-minute and in many ways fortunate. Management had a plan for Thibaut Courtois’ departure and managed to land Mateo Kovačić as part of the deal. That’s the good news. If Kovačić pans out, he’ll be a dynamic attacking midfielder and a perfect companion to N’Golo Kanté and Jorginho in midfield. Chelsea could end up having the best midfield in England if they all play to the level Sarri expects.
On the other hand, there are holes. We have a deficit of speed at both fullbacks. Marcos Alonso is a far better wing-back than he is a full-back. For all of his defensive gifts and character, César Azpilicueta is a better centre-back in a three than he is a fullback in a back four. There’s also a sense that Chelsea could use an elite centre-back, with aging David Luiz seemingly having displaced young Andreas Christensen, who became error-prone in the second-half of last season.
Up front, unless Alvaro Morata returns to his 2017 scoring form, centre-forward will be a source of concern. Oliver Giroud may have been better suited as a Conte target-man than as a CF for Maurizio Sarri. Tammy Abraham is athletic enough to play Sarri-ball but at 20 years-old is short on experience.
Some supporters want another wide forward, with an entrenched group who feel that Willian will never be the solution, despite his sterling play. It’s not clear that Sarri shares their opinion.
TSF: I know “you have a new manager” isn’t exactly breaking news for Chelsea, but what kind of impression has Maurizio Sarri made so far?
WAGNH: Excellent. He’s been positive, encouraging and unlike Conte he doesn’t have a bad word to say about Chelsea’s transfer activity. He’s also doing away with unpopular Conte-era mandates, like a ban on certain foodstuffs in the Cobham cafeteria and forcing the team to sleep in a hotel the night before an evening home match.
The players seem happy and excited about his style of football. He keeps repeating that he wants to them to be responsible but to have fun. He’s a taskmaster on the training ground but a genial presence overall.
The negative vibe from Conte’s second season is being dispelled, to everyone’s relief.
TSF: Is this a title-challenge season or are expectations mostly around a return to the Champions League?
WAGNH: Who knows what Roman Abramovich expects? He never talks and we are left to guess. There was a sense that he was willing to let Jose Mourinho survive a fall out of the top four, but that he had to cut his losses once the relegation zone beckoned. Conte soiled his nest so thoroughly that we’ll never know if Roman would have suffered through a fourth-place finish.
As for the support, we’ve been so spoiled since Abramovich bought the club in 2003 that we’re conditioned to snagging a trophy pretty much every season. But I think most supporters would be content with the following; a top-four finish, dramatic improvement over the course of the season as Sarrismo became instinctive, a strong run in the Europa League or FA Cup and optimism for the 2019-2020 season.
TSF: Is Kepa worth the hype?
WAGNH: Insufficient data. He wins points for composure. He loses points for being shorter than both of his predecessors. We worry about his control of the air in a crowded box. We think he’ll be good at playing out of the back. But he wasn’t tested by Huddersfield Town and he remains a question mark for now.
TSF: Are there any young players poised to make an impact this season we should keep an eye on?
WAGNH: There’s always one at Chelsea. In years past it was Ruben Loftus-Cheek, or Charly Musonda, or Jeremie Boga. This season we have two, and the enthusiasm around these two is perhaps greater than for any of the others. They’re both 17 years old and many a fan is convinced they should be playing regularly.
One is center-back Ethan Ampadu. Before he broke his ankle last season he put in a series of impressive performances in the FA Cup. His composure, maturity and ball skills are impressive.
The other is teen sensation Callum Hudson-Odoi. Playing in Eden Hazard’s left-wing slot, he lit-up the pre-season with spectacular runs and technical skills, thoroughly roasting Héctor Bellerín among others. Man City’s Kyle Walker subdued him in the Community Shield, but the sense was that CHO was a bit in awe and was reluctant to take him on. He won’t be next time.
TSF: For Arsenal to beat Chelsea on Saturday, they must (blank).
1/ Contain Eden Hazard (who may or may not start, depending on Sarri’s evaluation of his post-World Cup fitness.)
2/ Exploit Marcos Alonso on Chelsea’s left flank.
3/ Cut off the quick line-busting vertical passes that define Sarrismo.
4/ Pressure Jorginho, the play-making maestro.
Thanks to Sid for taking the time to chat!