They say a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and Chelsea are about to put that proverb to the test.
With seven fixtures coming up in just 22 days, the reigning English champions have a packed schedule between now and the next international break, which should prove a true litmus test of their squad depth. While Antonio Conte has the likes of Ballon d’Or candidates Eden Hazard and N’Golo Kanté in his team, success this season will also depend a lot on how satisfactorily the fringe players like Andreas Christensen and Charly Musonda perform. In football, one especially sturdy link can often compensate for the very weakest one – just look at Barcelona, where Lionel Messi and Thomas Vermaelen are in the same squad – but it’s true that one too many chinks in the armour can spell disaster.
The fact that Chelsea won the title by seven points last season and with the second-largest points total in Premier League history means the argument that they only won the league because they weren’t playing European football is a flawed one. Chelsea won the title last year because they were the best team in the country.
Of course, it is also true that it was beneficial to have free midweeks and that this probably helped them to win the title by such a large margin and with weeks to spare. The Stamford Bridge side were also aided by the fact their squad was one of the healthiest in the country, as only three teams in England’s top flight suffered fewer injuries than they did last season.
This year, then, Conte will have to rotate like never before, as European football will add at least six more fixtures to the calendar and probably several more, barring a remarkable collapse in the Champions League, where Chelsea already have six points in their group. The injury gods could also deal Conte a tougher hand in 2017/18 and already seem to be doing so, with Kanté and Álvaro Morata having suffered knocks in recent weeks.
The consequence of this is that Chelsea will have to scrape the barrel of their squad in ways they didn’t have to last campaign. On their way to Premier League glory, Conte had only started 18 different players by the time the Blues sealed the title, while only 16 squad members made 10 or more appearances across the league season. Just seven games into the 2017/18 season, already there have been 16 different names scribbled onto Conte’s Premier League teamsheets, with that number set to increase further as the Italian navigates this stretch in which Chelsea play a game every three days.
Already, though, there have been some encouraging displays from the understudies. With Andreas Christensen and the versatile César Azpilicueta, Chelsea have already shown they have enough depth at centre-back to cover a three-match suspension like Gary Cahill’s. Backup right-wing-back Davide Zappacosta has already demonstrated his attacking prowess in the Champions League, while backup left-wing-back Kenedy did likewise in the EFL Cup.
Michy Batshuayi may not offer as much to the team as a whole as Morata does, but the Belgian is already on five goals for the season. Then there’s the case of Danny Drinkwater, who hasn’t yet featured due to injury, but who has shown what he can do at Leicester over the past couple of seasons. And, of course, in Willy Caballero Chelsea have one of the best backup goalkeepers in the country, should Thibaut Courtois ever need to sit one out.
“It is not easy to succeed in multiple competitions, but we will do our best and we have got depth in our squad so that sometimes maybe one or two players can rest so that they are 110% for the next competition,” Hazard said when discussing squad depth in an interview before the start of the season.
Of course, he would say that, but it really does seem that Chelsea have enough butter to spread over all their bread this season. Now it is up to Conte to master the art of rotation and to use his resources in the right places and at the right times.
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