At the beginning of the BPL campaign I reveled in Chelsea's fall from the top. Not only was the club losing game after game, they were falling apart at the seams. Jose Mourinho proved himself a fair weather manager, contributing more than anyone to the club's disarray. He took a squad replete with talent but out of sorts and shredded their confidence. Sacking him was a good start to repairing the team, but I don't think Guus Hiddink is bold or creative enough to get them back in form. As impatient as their wealthy owner is, I suspect that issue will be dealt with soon enough.
First, let's look back at what went wrong.
Strikers. Loic Remy should have been a good signing. His pace and creativity would have provided a good contrast to Diego Costa's style of play. Costa plays with his back to the goal, acting as a pivot for the offense. He can create goals from time to time, and he is excellent at positioning himself to pounce on rebounds and deflections. He is also a pain in the ass, too much for my taste. I wished he played a cleaner game. Remy can be a bolt lightening, slashing into the box or ripping a shot with incredible speed. Sadly for Chelsea fans Remy has been a near-permanent presence on the injured list, and Mourinho's misguided and damaging experiment with Hazard at striker did not help the team find a groove in front of net. Loanee Pato hasn't been given much chance to impact the team and Remy may not be healthy and in form until 2017.
Wingers. It looks like Willian has worked hard all season and remained above the fray judging by his performance. The same cannot be said for Hazard and Pedro. They were all over the field -- you never knew where they might be at any given time. That freedom of movement seemed to add to the chaos. Pedro's injuries and Mourinho's head games cemented the damage. The disarray created opportunities for Loftus-Cheek and Traore to display their talents, a silver lining in a cloudy season.
Midfielders. Of all the reasons to suffer weak midfield performance, too much talent is a frustrating one. Chelsea has a nice pool of midfield talent but could never pull it together. Midfield play suffered for two reasons: a poor defense and a bad scheme that did not take advantage of the talent in play. The Chelsea formation calls for one attacking center midfielder, yet the team has two solid ones in Oscar and Fabregas. And it calls for two defensive midfielders, yet the squad consistently underperformed defensively.
Defense. What a mess. I was not a big fan of David Luis. I felt he risked too much with his rambles forward and left the defense exposed. But his departure for PSG must have had an impact on the chemistry of the back four. Had Chelsea kept him and used him as a center defensive mid they could have balanced his defensive skills with his offensive tendencies. Too much risk is also a problem at right and left back, where Azpilicueta was often out of position and Ivanovic's lack of pace saw him unable to recover against swift counter-attacks. Terry is a stalwart, but his two yellow cards at Sunderland today are plenty of evidence that he has lost a step. In 2015/2016 what might have been a series of timely interceptions turned into yellow cards for late challenges. This campaign he acquired seven cards, the most cards since 2011/2012 when he amassed 10. Cahill is perhaps solid but does not inspire. Zouma has tremendous upside but is now out with injury until 2017. Ivanovic has fallen apart in front of my eyes. His lack of effort and heart as it all fell apart was the most depressing and damning part of his game. Young Baba Abdul Rahman has made some terrible mistakes at left back, but he has tremendous potential.
So what should the next manager do to bring the club back into contention and relevance? One thing going for Chelsea is the relative age of their squad. Despite a few notable dinosaurs, the average age is only 26 and the team has stockpiled a lot of very young, talented players. Hazard, Zouma, Baba, Oscar, and Courtois, Loftus-Cheek and Atsu are all 24 or younger andare first team quality. A dozen players on the bench -- including Kenedy, Blackman, Salah, Ake, van Ginkel, Chalobah, Omeru, Pasalic, McEachran, Bamford, Kalas, and Piazon -- are all 22 or younger. If even a third of those players can step-up Chelsea has a bright future.
But what to do in 2016/2017 while those young players mature?
I'd be inclined to completely rehab the back four and change the formation in midfield with a goal of fortifying the defense while bringing more offensive pressure and stability to the attack.
To begin with, anchor Pedro, Willian and Hazard to the left and right wing and have them largely stay in position. They are all incredibly talented, and having them range across the field less will bring some stability upon which the Chelsea offense can gel. Yes it means that you are always sitting one of the three, but imagine the impact of any one of them off the bench.
Then use Fabregas and Oscar as left and right center attacking midfielders. That gives you five players on attack, all of whom bring firepower and creativity. You end up sacrifice a defensive mid for an attacking mid -- switching from a 1-3-2-4 to a 1-4-1-4 -- but two defensive mids didn't really help Chelsea this year. Chelsea only managed nine clean sheets in the BPL this campaign, two of which were against hapless Aston Villa, and three of which were nil-nil draws.
Chelsea has a few candidates for a classic center defensive mid, starting with Nemanja Matic and John Obi Mikel. Heading into the campaign Matic was considered one o the top 10 defensive midfielders in the game, while at times this season Mikel seemed even stronger. Together they would make a great center defensive mid shift.
How do you strengthen the defense and drop a defensive mid at the same time? Keep the two full backs on defense. Azpilicueta is under contract until 2019, so he either needs to change his game so he has a more defensive posture, or they need to find someone else who can do it on via transfer. And Baba Abdul Rahman has looked terrible at times this season, he is 21, under contract until 2020, and chock full of potential. I would keep him at left back and train him up. Ivanovic's contract is up and he should not be part of the club's mix going forward. Keeping both speedy full backs defensively oriented will protection against counter attacks and stabilize the defense. They are both fast and skilled enough to provide high-pressure and help control possession, they just need to improve defensively and focus should help.
Then upgrade at center back. Zouma will be back in 2017, so you can count on him for the future starting in January. Chelsea has two young center backs that could be Zouma's partner for years to come. Michael Hector, the Reading defender Chelsea signed in the last hours of the September window, and Matt Miazga who was signed in the January window from the Red Bulls. Both apparently have potential, and ideally one of them would be ready by January to play every day. Until Zouma gets back Cahill can soldier on. With his contract expiring in the Summer of 2017 it may make sense to transfer him in the January if either Hector or Miazga is ready to step up. But that still leaves Chelsea short a center back for the first half of the season while Zouma recovers, giving Chelsea some work to do in the offseason. Finding a solid, seasoned defenseman should be doable. I have been impressed by the solid play this season from a number of 30+ year -old center backs, including Younes Kaboul, Robert Huth, and Wes Morgan. Even Kolo Toure has been an impact player in the second half. While they can elect to re-sign Cahill, Chelsea would do well to find an affordable, experienced center back who could log a season or two and help mentor the team' young defenders.
The most important component in these recommendations is the stability involved in focusing players on their positions and roles. The team is coming off a bad, chaotic year and has a lot of young players. Stability and focus would first bring consistency to their play, and create a solid base upon which they can again develop creative chemistry.
As long as they stay at least one place in the standings behind Arsenal when they return to form I will be happy.