There are just 23 days left until the start of the new Premier League season, but Chelsea’s new team is finally taking shape. Having nailed down the most important component this week by convincing manager Antonio Conte to sign a new two-year deal, they have now found a striker to lead the line.
With three big departures from the champions either completed or planned this summer, Real Madrid’s Alvaro Morata will be the third big signing to arrive to fill a gap once he completes a reported £58m move.
Chelsea bade farewell to club legend John Terry, who joined Aston Villa at the end of his contract, but they gained £34 million centre-back Antonio Rudiger from Roma. Having left him out of their 25-man preseason tour squad, the Blues seem set to sell Nemanja Matic, but they have gained £40 million midfielder Tiemoue Bakayoko from Monaco. And now, finally, they’re about to sign a striker to replace the outgoing Diego Costa.
The capture of Morata should come as a huge relief for Blues fans. It means that their first XI is in no worse shape than they were last season. But next season will be much harder and the recruitment drive cannot stop now.
There has been a mixed response from Chelsea fans to news of a deal for Morata, which is curious given his obvious talents. Romelu Lukaku was, of course, their primary target before he moved to Manchester United for £75 million, but the Spaniard isn’t a bad second choice. He’s a versatile striker without any obvious weak spots. He has a bit of pace, he’s good in the air, he’s strong on the ball, his movement is good and he scores goals. What’s not to like?
No, he wasn’t able to guarantee his place in the Real Madrid starting line-up, having been given a second chance after impressing with Juventus, but that’s hardly a surprise. Competing with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema was never going to be easy and competition at the Bernabeu is a little tougher than at other clubs.
In light of that, his 20 goals from 43 appearances in all competitions is not to be sniffed at. He didn’t score as often as you would expect in Italy (27 in 93 appearances), but the goals came at important times and his class has never been in doubt from the moment he tore up the 2013 European Under 21 Championship in Israel — leading Spain to the title and finishing as the tournament’s top scorer.
Chelsea will certainly miss Costa’s combative nature, but they won’t miss everything that goes along with it: the histrionics, nastiness, unnecessary suspensions and the gloom that periodically descended upon him. The supporters, who loved Costa for his pantomime villain ways as much as they did for his goals, will remember only the good times, but it wasn’t that long ago that he was derided as a “rat” for his part in the second downfall of Jose Mourinho.
Costa’s goals always tended to come in explosive bursts. Last season he went from March 6-April 25 without scoring. In the miserable campaign before when Chelsea finished 10th, he scored just three times before Mourinho left and then mysteriously perked up. He may have finished as the club’s top scorer in each of his three seasons (59 goals in 120 games), but they could certainly do with someone who requires less maintenance.
And there’s a lot to be said for knowing that you’re wanted. Conte is a long-time admirer of Morata and considered moving for him last season. There will be no bigger name to edge him out of the frame at Stamford Bridge; he’ll have the game time he needs to adjust and his wide skillset gives him an excellent chance of settling swiftly.
But none of this will matter if Chelsea don’t continue the spending. Conte won the title last season with a very small squad. Spared any serious injury issues, only 13 players reached double figures for league starts. Nine of them made more than 30 starts and two made more than 25 — and that was without the drain of European football and all the travelling it entails. By contrast, 19 different Manchester United players reached double figures.
With at least six Champions League games to contend with, and probably more given their top seeding, Chelsea need a bigger squad, not a smaller one.
But behind the big money acquisitions, there has been a steady stream of departures. The traditional loan move diaspora has begun with Marco van Ginkel, Lucas Piazon, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Kasey Palmer, Tammy Abraham and Ola Aina all leaving for top or second division clubs.
Out too goes Nathan Ake, recalled from loan last season but barely used and now sold to Bournemouth for £20 million; reserve goalkeeper Asmir Begovic has joined him on the south coast; filled with recriminations, Bertrand Traore has gone to Lyon; Christian Atsu has gone to Newcastle; Nathaniel Chalobah leaves for Watford and young England striker Dominic Solanke, most interestingly, defected to Liverpool on a free transfer.
The debate over Chelsea’s attitude to youth development can wait for another time. What is clear is that the club have shed 12 players capable of playing Premier League football, on top of the more high profile departures that have either been completed or will be completed by the end of August.
Either Conte has unexpected and (at this club) unprecedented faith in the youth team, or Chelsea are well short of what is required for a long campaign.
Morata has everything it takes to be a success at Chelsea. He’s a first-class striker who should excel as the undisputed first-choice under a manager who believes in his talents. But Chelsea have only done the bare minimum of rebuilding work. They have to keep pushing forward now or their next title defence is likely to be as successful as their last one.