Despite late drama, missed targets and, potentially, a very unhappy manager, Chelsea’s transfer window had some high points. And with the deadline day purchase of Davide Zappacosta, it looks like history could be repeating itself.
The biggest deals aren’t always the best ones. No matter how good Alvaro Morata turns out to be for Chelsea, everyone will know what he brings to the table and everyone will have their plan for trying to stop it. They may not be successful, and Morata might score loads of goals, but it’s not the same as finding something completely new and totally unexpected. In other words, it’s big, but it’s not clever.
But this time last year, it was a smaller, more intelligent signing that brought Chelsea that bit closer to the title.
After a couple of games to assess his squad, Antonio Conte signed Marcos Alonso in a move which was widely considered an illogical panic buy. Here was a player who most people in England regarded as a Bolton Wanderers flop, even if he was too young back then to make a serious judgement about. The attacking full-back who looked out of his depth in the North West but who finally found a niche in Italy was surely destined to become yet another fancy foreign Premier League flop.
It turned out that he was the signing to totally revolutionised Chelsea’s season.
It was crucial that Conte had time to see his squad play some competitive games before concluding his transfer business. He saw that he was two players short of being able to play the back-three formation which eventually took the league by storm and bamboozled the opposition. It’s become a cliche, but that really did win the league for Chelsea. Signing N’Golo Kante was a big factor in Chelsea’s season. He was clearly crucial to the system, and was instrumental in two title victories in a row. But without David Luiz and Marcos Alonso Conte would never had had the opportunity to change system.
They were was the ‘clever’ signings of the year. Alonso especially wasn’t the most expensive signing of the summer, nor was he the most explosive. But he was the canniest signing, and possibly even the most effective. Conte took a player who few in England knew much about and turned him into the entire reason Edin Hazard was able to roam free in behind Diego Costa.
This summer, Chelsea looked like having a chance to retain the title with similarly canny signings. The idea of strengthening when you’re already strong is a well-established principle when it comes to retaining the title. Fresh impetus and new, hungry players are needed, and in the Premier League you can’t stand still. Standing still is really going backwards.
Chelsea had it easy, in a way. They had obvious areas in which they could strengthen. Victor Moses wasn’t a wing-back by trade and his FA Cup final performance showed he could be exposed by the opposition at times. Diego Costa, often anonymous from January onwards could have been replaced by a more consistent player. And N’Golo Kante could have been given a more natural partner than either Nemanja Matic or Cesc Fabregas.
It may have taken until deadline day, and it may have been after quite a number of players strangely (worryingly?) rejected the chance to join the Blues this summer, but the signing of Davide Zappacosta just before the window closed means that Conte now has potential upgrades in each of those positions identified above. And in a very similar vein to Marcos Alonso last year, the Italian will provide the Blues with something completely different.
An attacking right-back by trade, it’s Zappacosta’s speed and stamina which will stand out to an English audience. But as with all attacking full-backs, the worry is always about the defensive side of the game. With Antonio Conte’s wing-back system looking firmly set in place for another season, that shouldn’t be too much of a problem. He’s a more natural defender than Victor Moses, but will provide the same speed in attack along with the ability to run up and down the wing all game.
This looks like another clever signing. One that might not be the most glamorous, or even the first choice. But it’s clear that Conte has identified a player he can use for a specific role, and just like Alonso last season, it’s not the name of the player but what the manager has in mind for him that should scare the rest of the Premier League.
The other clever signing is Danny Drinkwater. Another player who doesn’t seem like the most glamorous signing, and one who many not turn out to be first choice at the club this season. But he was the player who won the league title playing alongside N’Golo Kante and who complemented the Frenchman perfectly when the pair starred at Leicester City. It’s not a big-name transfer by any means, but it’s one where you can see that it’s been done with a strategy in mind. Conte has put some thought into it.
None of this is to say that Chelsea have had the perfect window. They came out of it having eventually strengthened in all of the right areas, but they’ve also lost players who could have provided strength in depth and a chance at even greater rotation for the long season ahead which will involve fighting on four fronts. And yet, despite the talk of Chelsea crisis, an unhappy and a bare-bones squad, they’ve still managed to come out of the summer stronger than when they went into it. And they went into it as champions.
But most importantly, it’s clear that Chelsea are doing what they did last year – thinking about the makeup of their squad and how to use certain attributes to make it better and confuse the opposition. Despite the difficulties this summer, when the dust settles, Chelsea might well look dangerous once again.