2010/2011 team previews:
Next we have:
In a 2009/10 season that had seen the other members of the big four lose key players, Chelsea were in my opinion from very early on by a good margin the best team in the league and should probably (also with their goal difference in mind) have won more comfortable than they ended up doing.
There were definitely stumbling along the way. Losing an elite player like Essien to injury for starters. Then goalkeeper Petr Cech, while not on the Almunia scale but still, had some costly games where he just didn't seem confident and new coach Ancelotti while never messing up disastrously, did have new players and a new league that he had to get to know. Versus, to take the most obvious example, closest rival Manchester United with a manager and several players knowing exactly what it takes.
The one constant though for Chelsea. Ever since the Mourinho years but perhaps increasingly so now (with some cost defensively it has to be said) is the scary effective attack. Like I always say, they could be the most dangerous team of everyone in the final third. They can't always get it smoothly up there like a Barcelona, in fact Ancelotti's insistence on a more patient Milan-like possession based/less Mourinho direct attack, when that was stopped occasionally by teams in midfield simply cause this Mourinho build team still doesn't consist of finesse passers of the ball, was when they had their most trouble.
Once in the final third though, with Drogba as immense as ever, Lampard merciless and tireless with and without the ball, Malouda suddenly adding great skills to his always impressive work-rate and athleticism, enjoying his finest season ever, and then Anelka not to be confused anymore with the moody striker of the past, now instead in an almost free role working both right and central, holding up (and running with) the ball very well with strong balance being the insurance almost of maintained Chelsea final third pressure, giving everyone time to make the right runs around him.
Then if you add a couple of fullbacks in Cole and the revelation in that position that was Ivanovic able to go up and down the line all game long, it just becomes way too much for most teams to deal with defensively and that ultimately led to Chelsea's record breaking 103 goals scored.
If anyone have closed the gap enough to compete with that I'll hopefully get to in other previews of the top teams in England. For now though let's try and examine if Chelsea will be weaker or stronger this season.
The most important part of the team was what I just described. The final third domination that even when other things in other places, maybe weren't quite as good as they could, just kept on collecting points.
The most important players there are still intact and only potential vulnerability that I'm able to spot would be injuries. As excellent as they are one of Lampard, Malouda or Anelka injured could be lived with because of depth and versatility elsewhere in the squad.
Much worse would be a Drogba injury and I'm a little surprised that they didn't add a proven decent backup striker to their squad. Even if having to rot on the bench somewhat, Claudio Pizarro style.
Anelka of course has carried the load there well in the past, and could do so again, especially when the surroundings are so good, but by own admission (highlighted during the France World Cup disaster) he isn't and doesn't see himself as a center-forward anymore and reacted badly when put there.
For Chelsea it's much more flexible anyway though and there is constant movement among the attacking players and certainly with someone like (the up and down) Kalou, Anelka could do enough switching around to be be comfortable. And has done so in the recent past of course.
Third choice then is young English forward Daniel Sturridge who I'm not quite sure of yet (one way or the other) but that he is the leading striker on the England U-21 team can't be a bad sign surely.
Of attacking players actually gone most notable are Joe Cole and Deco. Both have been largely disappointing in recent times but occasionally when Chelsea's passing got obstructed to a point where the ball didn't get transported often enough to final third paradise, one or the other could come in and add some passing rhythm. Overall though I think it was correct of Chelsea to get rid of them with Cole being weak athletically and tactically and Deco aging while, ever since Scolari and "Blue Brazil", just not being a very good Premier League fit.
Instead Yossi Benayoun has come in who with both his movement and skill in the final third has every chance (on this team a better chance than ever) to be a good contributor whenever needed. Expect goals and assists.
Also kind of new when talking attacking players in the first team squad, since he has had both suspension (from the controversial transfer) and serious injury to deal with, is immensely talented 19 year old Gael Kakuta fresh from leading his France team to the U-19 European Championship.
He has played mainly left-wing where Malouda sit more strongly than ever but I wouldn't rule out Kakuta being able to contribute in most roles at Chelsea behind and around the striker.
He has pace, excellent technique and a bag of tricks that makes very challenging one on one.
With injury history in mind and all I'm not sure he physically is quite ready to take significant minutes from various experienced attacking Chelsea players but he has so much talent that together with Benayoun I do think he makes up for losing even proven stars like Cole and Deco.
And then there is Chelsea's best signing, Brazilian Ramires with the nickname "The Kenyan" for his unlimited running.
He doesn't look like much physically at first glance but has potential Makelele-like strength in central midfield (despite looking very impressive I've still seen too little of him in that role for a fully convinced verdict) and he also has enough pace and skill to be effective wide out right.
That's pointing towards a player who not only can fill in, but possibly be a good upgrade over the departed Ballack and often disappointing Mikel in central midfield, not least Ramires being Brazilian and with that almost automatically better at reading the game quickly and act accordingly, something Mikel can struggle with under pressure, but also play out wide on the right side, with how wide exactly depending on Ancelotti's system.
But definitely a player more natural as a right central midfielder than Essien, opening up I think, with Ballack gone, an important door for starting lineups without necessarily Mikel as the defensive midfielder.
On that note here is my strongest Chelsea lineup with the attacking positions not in very fixed positions at all meaning there are a lot of things you could call this system:
Safe choice to call it would be a 4-3-3 variation. That covers a lot of things... Often how Ancelotti lines up it's referred to as a 4-3-1-2 which in my formation would indicate Malouda less predominant on the left and Lampard one of the three central behind him, defensively often covering the left. Anelka then roaming around often based right helping making it all work. Not least by making up numbers so it's 5 and not 4 in midfield, despite what it says on paper. No matter what it is on paper exactly though, it's these I think are the strongest.
Defensively (where the goal really isn't supposed to be empty - sorry Petr Cech) one of the best central defenders in the world Ricardo Carvalho has joined his old boss Mourinho in Madrid, and hasn't really been replaced.
Fortunately for Chelsea, Terry and Alex are both very durable (unlike Carvalho recently) and easily make up what is still one of the strongest duos in the league and that on a team usually in control of their matches.
It's still a downgrade though with the only proven alternative being last season's right-back Ivanovic . Up until then usually a central defender anyway so if former right-back star Bosingwa comes back well from injury, it might very well be worth considering a Terry/Ivanovic duo to make room for what not long ago was one of the best right-backs in the world.
Fourth choice central defender looks to be young Dutch player Jeffrey Bruma. I hope he is ready, and if he is (sometimes quite the if) that Ancelotti will actually trust him (a young player gasp) cause I would hate once again seeing Essien used as emergency in central defense.
Ashley Cole on the left needs no introduction. He is one of the best at his position and effective both going forward and defending. His backup Zhirkov on the other hand is really more of left-wing in certain systems who's clear strength is when attacking where he can be a real weapon. Therefore he can fill in for Malouda as well, though now perhaps with increased competition in the form of talented Kakuta.
An incredibly strong squad and team. One of the best in the world and likely still superior in England (but to keep it interesting let's at least see what the other previews from England bring). Only potential questionmarks being injuries and age of key players.
As far as the last thing go, even if it's only a matter of time, there aren't really any danger signs just yet and even when it comes to injuries there only seems to be one player, Drogba, where it would really hurt, and not even to the extent of how it hurts United when they're without Rooney, Arsenal without Fabregas or Liverpool without Torres.
Tactically my only issue with them last season was at times relying too much on Mikel in central midfield. He has tremendous talent that would probably be much more out there to see had he more freedom. To go forward as well. Instead he is usually in a very tactical role and sometimes he struggles with the distribution aspect of it.
However there are some vague early signs, and I'm not ready to conclude anything, it was also against weak competition, that perhaps he has improved in those areas. It's still early of course but when on more than one occasion last season he was substituted prematurely because a lack of reading the game and limited passing was exploited as the one Chelsea weakness by opponents, it should of course set alarm bells ringing and be all the motivation needed to try and improve.
Even if he hasn't, and it's of course much easier said than done, Chelsea now both have a healthy Essien and newcomer Ramires as high quality midfielders more capable in those areas (among others) than Mikel.
UPDATE: in an interview I just came across, Ancelotti interestingly said this about Mikel: "Last season, he had an average of 18 per cent forward passes and in the three games this season he had 38 per cent. He's trying to put more balls directly to strikers.
It's very hard still not to see a Chelsea team who beats others like no other with their winning combination of great physique and great skill. Whether it's one or the other or both.
Yes eventually they'll get too old but for at least one more season they could be even better than the last one, so it will be up to other teams to step up. Even with a few very potential question marks here and there, central defense (perhaps combined with becoming too attacking) and striker depth if injury plagued, other areas on the other hand arguably more important ones, have been improved. Such as midfield overall looking stronger with on board a healthy Essien and the versatile Ramires. Even Benayoun, due to potentially blending so well with the final third surroundings, could end up doing quite a lot better than what the finesse players shown the door (Cole and Deco) did recently.
Outside of Barcelona in Spain, Chelsea are as much guaranteed to be excellent as anyone. It's the others who will have to improve.
At least, unlike in Spain, there is more than one team with at least the chance to do it.