With Rafa Benitez only replacing Roberto di Matteo on an interim basis, it is certain that Chelsea will be hunting for a new manager come the end of the season. But who could possibly take over the role? With Pep Guardiola having signed for Bayern Munich, the focus is on Jose Mourinho but with other viable destinations for him, it is far from certain that Mourinho will return to Chelsea. Some journalists have began to moot other potential candidates such as Guus Hiddink and also Juventus’ manager Antonio Conte. Conte led Juventus to victory undefeated in last season’s Serie A and he’s in the reckoning to do the double this season, with his side also a force in the Champions League. Despite being unable to speak English, he is an incredibly intelligent man and this should not hold him back; Ancelotti spoke little English when he joined Chelsea but quickly adapted; winning the double in his debut season.
So what about the tactics? This season 4-2-3-1 simply hasn’t looked comfortable with Chelsea lacking a natural defensive midfield pivot. None of Chelsea central-midfielders look comfortable in a two man pivot but are more suited to a three man midfield, such as that deployed at the club since Mourinho’s arrival in 2004. This could be problematic for Conte should he opt to install his famous 4-2-4.
Conte is certainly smart enough to change his pattern according to his players’ skills. He did it at Juventus when he switched his initial thoughts from the 4-2-4 to a 4-3-3, before, and to a 3-5-2, in orderto maximize Andrea Pirlo’s skills as the former Milan midfielder needs hard-working runners around him in order to thrive. Lining up two ball winning midfielders in Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio allowed Pirlo to be comfortable when the side were without possession.
Covering Pirlo was one of the main issues for the opponents during the last couple of Serie A seasons: using a second striker dropping in on Pirlo in the defensive phase resulted in the striker tiring quickly; using a midfielder often has seen this player be late on the cover. In both cases Pirlo became free as the game went on. And he also goes forward to help the team in the final third of the pitch. If teams try to cover Pirlo with an attacking midfielder, Giorgio Chiellini or Leonardo Bonucci were able to play the ball out of the back and join the midfield to start attacks for Juventus.
Chelsea clearly lack a ball playing midfielder of anywhere near the calibre of Pirlo. Conte might prefer to implement a three man midfield which suits current personnel a bit better than the current 4-2-3-1, although with Lampard looking set to leave in the summer, an overhaul may be imminent.
Fixing the defense
At the top of the must to-do list for next manager is fixing Chelsea defending from a structural viewpoint as this has been a relative weakness so far this season with Chelsea losing leads far too often. At centre-back, John Terry, Branislav Ivanovic, and Gary Cahill aren’t suited to Conte’s play. The Italian managers style of play revolves around people getting on the ball, including the defenders. Terry’s passing stats are good, but he is very injury prone at the moment and it remains to be seen whether he can play the role of a defender who passes 60-70 passes per game consistently. Having ball-playing defenders is certainly a key of Conte’ play style. A better option could be David Luiz, despite the fact his distribution wasn’t ever accurate, he does show the tendencies we associate with ball playing centre-backs, such as passing it out and trying raking diagonals. A lack of top quality players hurt the team this season but Conte would be able to improve the sides defending as he did with Juventus last couple of seasons.
In the middle, Eden Hazard is widely regarded as one of the best talents in Europe and despite a good debut season he hasn’t quite hit the heights that some would have imagined he would. Operating often as a left winger in the Blues’4-2-3-1 formation, although he’d prefer to play centrally, he rarely showed the class expected of him on the field, finding it difficult to influence the game from the left flank. Being just 22 years old, Hazard is still a work in progress but he needs a manager who can take him to the next level. Conte could be that manager. He could utilize him as wide left in his 4-2-4 or line up him as second forward, a mobile one, in the same formation, a position up front where he should play high up the pitch, but without duties to drop back alongside the midfielders when out of possession. This would certainly suit Hazard, who isn’t keen on defensive duties and prefers to influence the attack, not the defence.
There is a the possibility that Chelsea will not finish in the top four this season. Sacking Di Matteo didn’t pay off. Bringing on Guus Hiddink, Mourinho or Fabio Capello could be more attractive for fans and Roman Abramovich. But Conte could be the successful manager Chelsea Russian billionaire is looking for. Conte showed he can build a team challenging for major titles with a small budget and that he’s able to build a team philosophy. Also a winning attitude is present where Conte has proven to be able to successfully manage high profile players, leading them to understand that the team is bigger than one man. This attitude is pertinent when we consider the egos that have been at Chelsea since Abramovich took over.