This week, I evaluate the role of each of Chelsea’s players in this past Title-winning season. After stumbling a bit early on, tactical changes made by manager Antonio Conte propelled the Blues to the top of the League, a journey in which every player had a role:
1: Asmir Begovic, Goalkeeper
Begovic made only two league appearances this season in goal, an unsurprising statistic considering how strong and healthy a season Thibaut Courtois had. He did, however, play an important role in Chelsea’s run to the FA Cup final. Over the past two seasons Begovic, without question a Premier League starting quality goalkeeper, has been primarily an insurance policy, one that was needed last season when Courtois missed significant time due to injury. This past week it was announced that Begovic will be joining Bournemouth, where he spent time back in 2007, to be their starting keeper. An opportunity well deserved.
2: Branislav Ivanovic, Defender
Ivanovic’s role this season could be a metaphor for the entire team. He came into the season as the default options at right back in the default back-4. However, following the 3-0 thumping at Arsenal, the formation was permanently switched, Ivanovic’s position eliminated, and his playing time quickly evaporated. It wasn’t long before a move to Zenit was agreed, but Ivanovic did get an opportunity to properly say goodbye when he scored a goal in a 4-0 FA Cup win against Brentford.
3: Marcos Alonso, Defender
When Marcos Alonso was signed in the summer, the prevailing thought was that Conte must see something in him others don’t. Once a member of Real Madrid’s youth academy, Alonso’s previous PL experience included Bolton and Sunderland in addition to Fiorentina in Serie A from where he was signed (nothing spectacular). In the end, he proved to be a vital piece in Conte’s system, making the left wing-back position his own. All told he made 31 league appearances, scoring 6 goals including a couple of spectacular free kicks. He will inevitably have to contend with stiffer competition than Kenedy for playing time next season, but after how he’s impressed I don’t doubt Alonso’s ability to rise to the challenge.
4: Cesc Fabregas, Midfielder
If the the Premier League had an equivalent for the NBA’s 6th Man of the Year award, it would go to Cesc Fabregas. He made 29 appearances, 16 of which were as a substitute, and led the team with 12 league assists to go along with 5 goals. The more attacking alternative to Matic alongside Kante in central midfield, Fabregas is still a world class player but hasn’t managed to secure a permanent place in the team, largely on account of the formation. There were times that he played behind Hazard and Costa in what was roughly a 3-4-1-2 but this setup was used only sparingly.
Personally, I hope that Fabregas stays around given the importance of his contributions but I wouldn’t hold it against him if he went in search of more guaranteed minutes.
5: Kurt Zouma, Defender
Coming into the season, the question for Kurt Zouma was when would he be back? His improvement and development was one of the few bright spots of the 15/16 season but it all came to a halt when he tore his ACL midway through last year. Zouma only made 9 appearances this year, 6 as a substitute late in games for Victor Moses when Conte wanted more defensive solidity. Zouma has a lot of potential, and with continued improvement and John Terry’s retirement it will be interesting to see what Zouma’s role is going forward, as he’ll be competing with fellow young defenders Nathan Ake and (presumably) Andreas Christensen for opportunities.
6: Nathan Ake, Defender
Ake was recalled from a loan at Bournemouth in January following a strong few months for the Cherries (his importance was most visible in the down-turn in defensive form after he left). He only made 2 league appearances after his return, finding most of his game time in the FA Cup. It is a little strange that Conte decided to bring him back with how well he was playing and the limited opportunity for him once he returned, but I would suspect the reason was simply squad depth and the versatility that Ake provides. It was reported this week that he’s meeting with club officials about his future. Given that he’s proven he can play regularly at a high level, it won’t be surprising if he opts out of competing for time in what could be a crowded defensive unit next season.
7: N’Golo Kante, Midfielder
Kante was without a doubt the most important acquisition made by any Premier League team last summer. The impact of his move from Leicester to Chelsea was obvious for both teams, as he became an engine in midfield for the Blues and the Foxes struggled to replicate the football they produced last season. It could certainly be argued that the 30 million pounds Chelsea paid for the Frenchman was a bargain, who won both the PFA Player of the Year and FWA Player of the Year (voted on by fellow players and writers respectively). He was second in the league in tackles won, and though he scored only one league goal it was one of my favorites of the season as he weaved his way through the Manchester United defense. He also scored the winning goal in the FA Cup Quarterfinal against ManU as well. As Jose Mourinho watched on in both games, Kante’s brilliance defined the evolution from last season’s disappointment to this one’s triumph.
8: Oscar, Midfielder
Another casualty, Oscar made only 9 appearances in the league before moving to Shanghai SIPG, who paid a reported 60 million pounds for him. That’s about double what Chelsea paid for Kante and I would argue maybe triple what he was worth. Given that Conte had deemed him surplus to requirements this was really a no brainer. I really liked Oscar, and he had played very well as a #10 in the past. There’s just no place for him in the current team, and making a ton of money in China isn’t the worst thing in the world.
10: Eden Hazard, Forward
After vanishing for the better part of the 2015/16 season, Hazard returned in a big way this season as he finished with 16 goals and 5 assists. Given that Hazard has little interest in defending, Conte’s 3-4-3 system has suited him nicely as it allows him to work as a forward rather than a midfielder with defensive responsibilities. If not for the impact of N’Golo Kante, Hazard might well have been the one collecting the MVP awards, and he won Chelsea’s Player of the Year award ahead of the Frenchman. Hazard’s most spectacular moment was his incredible solo goal against Arsenal, magic he was unfortunately unable to reproduce in the FA Cup final. Nonetheless, a phenomenal season for Hazard, who will hopefully stay in West London for years to come.
11: Pedro, Forward
Plenty of players earned the ire of Chelsea fans last season with how poorly the team played, but few more than Pedro who struggled to put a shot anywhere near the net and looked to have left his offensive abilities behind in Barcelona. Not so this time around, as he scored some of the most pivotal goals of the season, including spectacular efforts against Tottenham in November and against Everton in April. In all, he scored and assisted 9 each and kept Willian out of the starting XI for most of the season. He’ll have to continue to compete for his place in the team, but this year the Spaniard was back to his best.
13: Thibaut Courtois, Goalkeeper
Thibaut Courtois was the anchor in net for the Blues this year, playing in 36 of 38 league games, including 16 clean sheets which earned him the Golden Glove award. As strong as many of his performances were, Courtois should give that award to his defense for minimizing his workload this season. As difficult as letting go of Petr Cech was last year, Courtois has proved he was worthy of the club’s trust. A job well done.
14: Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Midfielder
This season held so much promise for RLC. During friendlies last summer he was being deployed as a second striker in a 4-2-4 idea Antonio Conte was trying out and seemed on the verge to finally make his breakthrough in the first team. It wasn’t to be, however, as once the 3-4-3 became the norm the England U21 international found no place for himself in the team, not agile and an efficient passer enough to play in the middle and not quick enough to play as an inside forward. He featured just 6 times, all from the bench.
15: Victor Moses, Midfielder
What a revival of a season it was for Victor Moses! After being loaned out all over England over the past few years, no player benefited more from the tactics of Antonio Conte, as Moses made the was the only player to start a league game at right wing-back. He improved his defensive skills as the season progressed and became an important, reliable member the team. He also scored one of the most influential goals of the season, the winner against Tottenham in November (although I’m also partial to this goal because I saw it in person). It will be interesting to see what the future holds for Moses, but his role in winning the title should not be overlooked.
19: Diego Costa, Forward
In Diego Costa’s two previous seasons, we saw the two different sides of the striker: one a lethal, aggressive center forward, the other a player who was more concerned with kicking opponents than the ball and would complain incessantly. This season, it was (mostly) the former, with Costa piling up 20 goals and 7 assists. His most important contribution was the goal that turned the game at Man City on its head, in which the team displayed its resiliance. There were plenty of rumors in January that Costa was going to leave the club and go to China, and although he stayed those rumors have not become any quieter. Costa is at times brilliant, but for long stretches he is almost invisible on the field. He also too often is looking for a foul as opposed to trying to get by a defender on his own merits, which he’s certainly capable of doing. If he is to leave, it will be bittersweet but I won’t say I’ll miss him.
21: Nemanja Matic, Midfielder
Usually the prefered option in midfield next to Kante, Matic quietly went about his work this season. He’s a bulldozer in midfield but also eager to chip in in building attacks, as well as scoring the occasional spectacular goal (see his rocket in the FA Cup semifinal vs Spurs). While he does contribute to Conte’s defense-first approach, I found it hard to understand how he was consistently picked ahead of Fabregas given how well the Spaniard played whenever he was given the opportunity. Matic fit perfectly into the 4-2-3-1 of Jose Mourinho, but it will be interesting to see what his future is under Antonio Conte.
22: Willian, Forward
Willian came into this season on a high. He was Chelsea’s Player of the Season last year, which he won almost by default for being the only player who looked anything like his former self, as he spent the season scoring free kicks seemingly for fun. He started the year as the obvious choice on the right wing, but that evolved into a rotation with Pedro in which the Spaniard eventually supplanted the Brazilian in the starting XI. Willian did not disappoint when given the opportunity to play, and while it was clear why Pedro was continuing to start it’s hard to blame Willian for his lack of game time. The handful of occasions where he, Hazard and pedro were all played together as a front 3 displayed his versatility and he undoubtedly is an asset to the team. That all said, I’ll understand if he goes in search of guaranteed playing time this summer.
23: Michy Batshuayi, Forward
Michy Batshuayi was brought in by the club last summer to be a second striker to Diego Costa, both because a backup was needed and because Costa is liable to be suspended once in awhile. But Costa kept himself out of trouble all season and his notoriously troublesome hamstrings held up. As a result, Michy didn’t get many opportunities to show his talent. That is, until the end of the season where he scored 4 goals in the final 3 games including the one that sealed the Title for Chelsea. Batshuayi looks to have plenty of talent, and personally I hope he sticks around. I’ll understand if he looks elsewhere for playing time but it would be too bad for a player of his quality, particularly given the money the club spent to bring him in, to leave so soon.
24: Gary Cahill, Defender
It was quite the season for Gary Cahill. It began with criticism of his defensive abilities, it featured multiple own-goals, he scored 6 goals while helping to keep 15 clean sheets, and it saw him take over the on-field captaincy from John Terry. I’ve always thought Cahill gets more criticism than he deserves. He isn’t the best defender in the world, and every so often he does do something inexplicable, but he’s been an important part of the team this season. Conte has not said definitively that Cahill will become club captain next year once Terry is gone, and it remains to be seen if that’s because he simply doesn’t want to put the cart before the horse or if it means Conte does not want to make Cahill captain if he won’t be a guaranteed starter (a distinct possibility depending on personnel changes this summer).
26: John Terry, Defender
The final days of this season were as much about celebrating the career of John Terry as about celebrating a championship. Terry has seen the transformation of the club into a European giant over the past two decades. He has made 492 appearances for Chelsea in the Premier League, scoring 41 goals (the most by any defender) and helping keep 130 clean sheets. He also made 78 appearances for England. He’s helped lead Chelsea to 5 League titles, 5 FA Cups, 3 League Cups, and winning the Champions League in 2012. He only made 9 appearances this season but that doesn’t seem to matter much. Winning the league was a fitting send off, and he leaves Chelsea in good hands defensively. Captain. Leader. Legend.
28: César Azpilicueta, Defender
It’s been quite the journey around the Chelsea defense for Azpilicueta. From back-up right back, to right-footed left back, to right side center back in a back 3, he’s proved he can do it all defensively. Given his size at 5’ 10” and that he was a fullback by trade, there were doubts about his fitness to play in the back 3. He certainly proved the doubters wrong, playing every minute of every game in the Premier League this season as well as completing the most passes of any player in the league. He has certainly staked a claim for keeping his place in the team long-term.
29: Nathaniel Chalobah, Defender
After being sent out on loan every year since 2012, Antonio Conte decided to keep the 22-year-old Englishman around this season as an additional option in midfield. Chalobah only made 10 appearances, a result of the phenomenal form of Kante, Matic, and Fabregas. Nevertheless, he looked solid in the opportunities he was given. He’s at a point in his career where he won’t want to go out on loan again, and thus is another player who may seek opportunities elsewhere if reinforcements are brought in to fortify the team for next season.
30: David Luiz, Defender
When PSG paid Chelsea 50 million pounds for David Luiz in 2014, the soccer world laughed, as Luiz has become known as a defender not great at defending. The soccer world was laughing again when Chelsea paid 34 million pounds to bring him back last summer. Everyone, Chelsea fans included, were wondering what Conte had in mind. How would Luiz fit into Conte’s system? The answer: perfectly. After struggling a bit playing in a back 4 early in the season, Luiz has thrived as the center of the back 3 in Conte’s system. As a defender who enjoys having the ball at his feet and venturing forward, the role suits him perfectly. He’s not a player whose contributions will be shown on paper, but he was given a job this season and excelled at it.
Antonio Conte, Manager
More than any player, Chelsea’s success this season can be most attributed to Antonio Conte. A coach who demands nothing short of maximum effort from his players, he proved the ideal manager to revive a team that last season was often apathetic and lethargic. In a league that had become tactically stagnant in recent years (Leicester playing a 4-4-2 last year en route to the Title was considered noteworthy simply because it wasn’t 4-2-3-1) Conte’s 3-4-3 system that brought him so much success with Juventus caught the Premier League off guard, and several teams tried variations of the system themselves. He brought in players in the summer who he knew could do a job within his system, and he placed his players in positions to succeed. His constant energy and positive attitude are the antithesis of Jose Mourinho, and he’s showed the Chelsea faithful that they didn’t know what they were missing. The fans have come to love him, and it seems the feeling is mutual; though perhaps Conte just loves the game itself that much. As a Chelsea fan it was often hard to defend things Mourinho did or said, and the attitude was that as long as the team won he could be ignored. That showed when he was dismissed once the winning stopped. Chelsea have a tendency of being impatient with managers, but I hope that Conte is given the full opportunity to build a legacy at Chelsea. With Conte at the helm, the color is Blue and the future is bright.
This Week In…..
This was a pretty solid week for music releases! Something that I admire in the modern age of music is artists who still commit to the idea of an album as a single, cohesive piece of work rather than a collection of a bunch of songs. The 3 albums featured this week are all noteworthy in that regard.
I’ve always been pretty hot/cold with alt-J but in general I like this album. It’s true to it’s name, with the majority of the tracks being serene, mellow, and very instrumental. The one notable exception is “In Cold Blood” which may be my favorite alt-J song (it’s close between it and “Breezeblocks”). Anyone who’s a fan of their previous work will like the new stuff. I’ve always just thought they were kind of weird, but I’m growing to appreciate their music and their talent.
Bleachers, “Gone Now”
I wasn’t sold on Bleachers’ new music when I had heard a couple of singles from this album, but I found I like them a lot more in the context of the album. It could be said that all the songs on this album sound the same, but I think that works in the album’s favor. It flows well from one song to another, with several ideas/themes repeated throughout. It’s upbeat, bright, and just fun to listen to. Only downside: more evidence that there probably won’t be another Fun album; Jack Antonoff is doing just fine for himself.
Dan Auerbach, “Waiting on a Song”
The Black Keys singer and guitarist released a solo album this week, and it’s really good while being distinct from his other work. The songs are lighter and more laid back than most Black Keys stuff, with some strong 60’s and 70’s rock vibes. It’s as if you mixed the Black Keys with a bit each of the Beatles, Beck, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Jack Johnson. Whether you’re a Black Keys fan or not it’s definitely worth the listen.
Arcade Fire, “Everything Now” – First single off an upcoming album; sounds more like ‘Funeral’ and ‘The Suburbs’ than their most recent album ‘Reflektor’.
Foo Fighters, “Run” – If you like Foo Fighters songs where Dave Grohl screams, this one’s for you.
Liam Gallagher, “Wall of Glass” – Every time Liam or Noel Gallagher puts out new music I have renewed hope for an Oasis reunion that is never going to happen.
Lorde, “Perfect Places” – Lorde’s new album “Melodrama” is due out next week; this is the third single from it and definitely my favorite of the 3.
Phoenix, “Goodbye Soleil” – Second single from upcoming album “Te Amo” sounds a lot like a slower version of the first single “J-Boy”
Portugal the Man, “So Young” – For a band whose only song I knew was “People Say” from 2009, I’ve really liked the first two singles from their upcoming album, of which this is the second.
Radiohead, “I Promise” – For the 20th anniversary of their album “OK Computer” the band have been releasing tracks which will be part of a deluxe version of the album. If acoustic Radiohead is your thing, give it a listen.
Given that it’s only been a few days since my last post, which was delayed because of Memorial Day weekend, just a few quick notes on the teams I usually talk about:
- The Bears signed free agent WR Victor Cruz in the first offseason transaction of theirs that I fully agree with
- The White Sox have lost every game they’ve played since Tuesday (0-4).
- The US Men’s National Soccer Team has 3 games over the next week: a friendly against Venezuela tonight followed by World Cup Qualifiers against Trinidad and Tobago (Thursday) and Mexico (Sunday). In order to stay on track to qualify, the USMNT need a win against T&T and will be hoping for a draw against El Tri at the Azteca.