Resetting Chelsea's Targets for the 2017/18 Season

Garry Hayes@@garryhayesFeatured ColumnistNovember 14, 2017

Chelsea's Italian head coach Antonio Conte celebrates on the pitch with Chelsea's Spanish defender Cesar Azpilicueta (R) after the English Premier League football match between Chelsea and Manchester United at Stamford Bridge in London on November 5, 2017.
Chelsea won the game 1-0. / AFP PHOTO / Glyn KIRK / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE. No use with unauthorized audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or 'live' services. Online in-match use limited to 75 images, no video emulation. No use in betting, games or single club/league/player publications.  /         (Photo credit should read GLYN KIRK/AFP/Getty Images)
GLYN KIRK/Getty Images

Now that the Premier League season is taking shape, we have reached a point where clubs begin to reassess what their targets are for the campaign.

For some, it becomes about survival and can mean managers being given the chop. Ahead of the recent international break, that's what happened at West Ham United, with Slaven Bilic being replaced by David Moyes.

Sides such as Burnley are looking further up the table. Thanks to their excellent away form, Sean Dyche's men will be thinking they can have a realistic shot at breaking into the top 10 for the first time.

The Clarets are seventh in the table, level on points with Arsenal and Liverpool. If this continues, maybe a European place could beckon.

For Premier League champions Chelsea, the situation is no different. The 2017/18 campaign has thrown up a few surprises and means they will be looking at what their priorities are between now and when the season is done next May.

To save the Stamford Bridge hierarchy the job, we've listed some of our own targets the Blues need to be addressing.

            

1. Begin the process of phasing out senior stars

STOKE ON TRENT, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 23: Andreas Christensen of Chelsea in action during the Premier League match between Stoke City and Chelsea at Bet365 Stadium on September 23, 2017 in Stoke on Trent, England. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Finally we're seeing a breakthrough when it comes to the talents of Chelsea's rising academy stars.

For too long we have spoken about potentialnow the focus is on players delivering. Top of that list is Andreas Christensen, who has returned from a two-year loan spell with Borussia Monchengladbach to be a part of manager Antonio Conte's first-team plans.

The 21-year-old Dane has been impressive whenever he has appeared at the heart of defence, deputising for David Luiz when the Brazilian has been suspended or moved due to tactical decisions.

Chelsea fans have purred over Christensen's ability for some time and now it feels like he is turning that support into something much more substantial.

It's the same with Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who is on loan with Crystal Palace. The 21-year-old was named the Eagles' player of the month for August and September, and he's followed up that with an England call-up.

On his debut against Germany, Loftus-Cheek won the man-of-the-match award, too, with a display that outlined his newfound confidence in midfield. He looked exceptional, a player unfazed by the burden some feel with the Three Lions shirt on their back.

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 10: Ruben Loftus-Cheek of England and IIkay Gundogan of Germany battle for possession during the International friendly match between England and Germany at Wembley Stadium on November 10, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Ros
Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images

When we look further afield, players such as Lewis Baker are also maturing. It means Chelsea can't afford to miss out on their continued progress in the same way the club has in the past.

It's time Chelsea were brave and started the process of phasing out more senior players, with the rising crop moving in to replace them in the long term.

Let's not get too carried away here, though. The likes of Cesc Fabregas, Gary Cahill and Luiz—who are all the wrong side of 30—still have plenty to offer Chelsea. They have a future with the club, but it shouldn't come at the expense of youngsters who will become the spine for many years.

Conte mustn't be afraid to integrate these players at the expense of some egos, rotating them to ensure they remain satisfied and also fresh enough to perform. It has to be a seamless process, but it's one Chelsea have rarely looked willing to roll out.

They have to now, which also means looking within before they go all-out in the transfer market.

There are exciting times ahead, it would seem. Chelsea look to be a club on the brink of something special with their young talent. Now's the time to show a little more faith in them.

             

2. Win the mini-league below Manchester City

Chelsea's Italian head coach Antonio Conte celebrates on the pitch with Chelsea's Danish defender Andreas Christensen (L) after the English Premier League football match between Chelsea and Manchester United at Stamford Bridge in London on November 5, 201
GLYN KIRK/Getty Images

As Premier League champions, the target for Chelsea this season was always to retain the trophy. Regardless of whether last term's title triumph felt premature or not, it was the Blues' duty to make a fist of it.

Currently sitting in fourth place, a point behind Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur, Conte's side are doing that. There have been frustrating defeats to Crystal Palace and Burnley along the way, but overall Chelsea have looked the part this term.

Indeed, they're on a three-match winning streak after a blip in October. That's a promising platform as we come out of the final international break of 2017.

For all those positives, the Blues are eight points adrift of league leaders Manchester City. We still have 27 games before the season is over, but even at this stage, it's a gap that is looking too big to overcome.

As Conte and his players will know themselves, it's the momentum teams have at this stage of the season that carries them to the title. Take 2016/17, when Chelsea continued to take maximum points every week while their rivals were dropping them.

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 05: N'Golo Kante of Chelsea during the Premier League match between Chelsea and Manchester United at Stamford Bridge on November 5, 2017 in London, England. (Photo by Catherine Ivill - AMA/Getty Images)
Catherine Ivill - AMA/Getty Images

Come the end of December, the title was Chelsea's to lose and they cruised their way to victory. We look at City in this moment, and they're doing the same.

For now, Conte has to forget about what Pep Guardiola's side is doing. The focus for Chelsea has to be winning the mini-league that is forming in the wake of City's runaway title pursuit.

With United and Spurs above them, three points back from Chelsea are Liverpool and Arsenal. Those five teams are competing for three Champions League places, which in itself is as tough as a title challenge.

Chelsea have to outdo all of them. City are threatening to disappear over the horizon, and before any side can think about catching up, they have to find some comfort in the top four.

             

3. Win the FA Cup and Carabao Cup

Chelsea players celebrate with the trophy after Chelsea's 2-1 win in the FA Cup final football match between Liverpool and Chelsea at Wembley Stadium in London, England on May 5, 2012. AFP PHOTO/IAN KINGTON
IAN KINGTON/Getty Images

On the back of the Premier League title hopes appearing to be gone, Chelsea can't lose momentum when it comes to picking up silverware.

Keeping the trophy cabinet loaded has been a signature of the Roman Abramovich era and it shouldn't stop now. Chelsea still have the Carabao Cup and FA Cup to play for, and they shouldn't be turning their focus from those competitions.

Success in the Carabao Cup, for instance, is attainable. Chelsea face Bournemouth in the quarter-final at Stamford Bridge—a side they recently defeated with relative ease in the league. The victory may have come by just the solitary goal, but the 1-0 scoreline didn't tell the story of what was a dominant display.

Conte's men should beat the Cherries at home, which takes them into the semi-final where they will potentially face any of Arsenal, City or United. They are all difficult opponents, but over two legs and in a cup format, Chelsea know they have the players to book a Wembley Stadium return.

The League Cup delivered the first trophy of the Abramovich era, and since then it has fed a legacy of success for Chelsea. They have to keep that rolling this season.

When Chelsea enter the FA Cup in January, it's the same again. The biggest clubs never turn down the opportunity of lifting silverware, and the Blues don't want to start a bad habit by doing the opposite now.

A trophy this season will represent more progress under Conte.

                 

4. Keep Antonio Conte at all costs

Chelsea's Italian head coach Antonio Conte celebrates on the pitch after the English Premier League football match between Chelsea and Manchester United at Stamford Bridge in London on November 5, 2017.
Chelsea won the game 1-0. / AFP PHOTO / Glyn KIRK /
GLYN KIRK/Getty Images

Speaking of the manager, Chelsea have to move hell and high water to keep the Italian at Stamford Bridge.

There has been tension over transfers at various stages of his reign, but regardless of the politics, we need only look at the pitch to see the value he brings to the club.

Conte inherited a team that was broken. Chelsea had just finished mid-table on the back of their worst season in 20 years. They were flirting with being left behind as the clubs around them strengthened.

Within 10 months of his arrival, Conte had reversed things so substantially that Chelsea were being crowned as England's finest once more. The Blues' success, given all that had passed before it, was as unlikely as Leicester City's the season previous (we concede it wasn't as remarkable, of course).

We fast-forward to the present, and Conte's influence on this team remains strong. His peers are adapting their own tactics to mirror what Chelsea are doing, tooa sign of the regard in which he is held in football.

Managers such as the Italian don't come around often. And Abramovich needs convincing of that, he need only look at his own record when it comes to hiring them. The Russian owner has hired and fired 10 different men in his bid to find the right formula in west London. Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti and Conte have been the only success stories.

With the recent departure of technical director Michael Emenalo, Chelsea also require some stability.

Emenalo may not have been a popular figure among fans, but his influence has been a strong one at Stamford Bridge. He will be missed, and the club need to restructure if his absence isn't going to hit them hard.

Losing a manager in among all the upheaval is far from ideal.

                

5. Tie down Eden Hazard to a new contract

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 05: Eden Hazard of Chelsea in action during the Premier League match between Chelsea and Manchester United at Stamford Bridge on November 5, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Since 2012, Chelsea have been building the club around Eden Hazard. Now isn't the time to be turning their back on that by allowing him to leave to the highest bidder—we're assuming that will probably be Real Madrid.

Reports in the press constantly link Hazard with a move to the Spanish capital. Now that his boyhood hero Zinedine Zidane is the Real Madrid manager, it makes a move feel even more likely. The Belgian's recent comments to RTL (h/t the Telegraph) that playing under him "would be a dream" have thrown fuel on the fire.

The dream for Chelsea in the immediate and distant future has to be about Hazard, though. We've seen the early signs of him creating a promising partnership with Alvaro Morata in attack, so to dismantle it prematurely would be catastrophic.

At 26, Hazard is entering his prime. He's been a Chelsea player since he was 21, and the club have to ensure the return on their investment comes in the form of silverware and a dynasty that Real Madrid's millions can't compensate for.

Hazard's contract expires at the end of the 2019/20 campaign. That means by the end of this season, he'll have just two more years to run. It's about now when agents start touting a player's wares to interested clubs, as next summer will be decisive in where Hazard's future lies.

Chelsea have to get those contract talks started now if it's to be at Stamford Bridge.

              

6. Identify Thibaut Courtois' replacement

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 05:  Thibaut Courtois of Chelsea rolls the ball out during the Premier League match between Chelsea and Manchester United at Stamford Bridge on November 5, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

We're erring on the side of controversy here as the instant reaction surrounding Thibaut Courtois is that Chelsea must do everything they can to keep him.

The Belgian is the man who ousted Petr Cech from the club and is regarded as one of the world's finest in his position.

That may be so, but how much of that is hype? How much of our impression of Courtois comes from the reputation he created while on loan with Atletico Madrid three seasons ago?

Where Courtois excels over most is his ability to do the basics of goalkeeping well. He has good reflexes and uses his large frame well to deny attackers. Indeed, he pulled off an exceptional save to prevent Marouane Fellaini scoring a late equaliser in Chelsea's recent 1-0 win over Manchester United.

Look at his wider game, however, and the 25-year-old seems a goalkeeping relic. The notion of a sweeper-keeper is no longer a trend, it's the future. More and more goalkeepers who are joining the biggest teams come as complete players; they can do what Courtois does, but they're also an asset in a team's offensive play.

ROME, ITALY - OCTOBER 31: Cesar Azpilicueta and Thibaut Courtois of Chelsea FC after the UEFA Champions League group C match between AS Roma and Chelsea FC at Stadio Olimpico on October 31, 2017 in Rome, Italy.  (Photo by Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images )
Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images

Think of Manuel Neuer at Bayern Munich or David De Gea at Manchester United and Ederson at Manchester City. Even Everton's Jordan Pickford is rising to the elite with an all-round game that gives his side an extra outfield player.

We see it so often with Chelsea that teams press them high and encourage Courtois to have possession. He isn't comfortable with the ball at his feet, and more often than not he struggles under pressure to concede possession in his own half.

Chelsea can get away with it against lesser sides. It's when facing the best teams they won't, as proved the case with City earlier this season. It was similar against AS Roma in the Champions League, where the less glamorous Alisson was influential in starting attacks for his team.

As a goalkeeper, Courtois is talented, but that isn't enough in football now. A No. 1—or No. 13, in his case—has to bring so much to a team that he doesn't. It's time the Blues started to look for an upgrade ahead of next summer.