Has there been a time in recent years when Chelsea had fewer things to worry about in January?
Normally this time of year there’s a great deal of chatter about what teams will do (and ought to do) in the January transfer window, and Chelsea supporters have traditionally enjoyed the winter mini-silly season as much as anyone.
This year, though … January 2017 feels different. The why is probably obvious – you win 13 in a row and find yourself five clear at the top of the table, the simple fact is that you probably have fewer things that need fixing. Still, no team is perfect, so there’s bound to be something the Blues need to do, right?
Well, maybe, maybe not. The side is certain to see some turnover before next season (and with Oscar and Mikel already off to China the process has already begun). By the time the summer window closes we’ll almost certainly see John Terry’s historic career at the Bridge concluded, and Branislav Ivanovic has lost a step or two that he isn’t getting back. Gary Cahill (who has so far this year been the most dangerous attacking option Blues opponents have had) may be surplus, as well.
In the middle of the park it’s a good bet that Cesc Fabregas will be off, perhaps to Italy.
But now? Why fix what isn’t broken?
Fabregas may not be Conte’s first choice in the 10 role, but he has bounced back from a nightmare 2015-16 season to be quite valuable generating attacking opportunities. He seems certain to play a meaningful part in the second half of the season.
Kurt Zouma is back and healthy, and in many ways this is sort of the equivalent of bringing in a world-class center back. It’s easy to imagine him displacing Cahill, even, in the starting 11 (a development that would certainly help Thibault Courtois sleep easier at night). Right now Conte has David Luiz, Cesar Azpilicueta, Cahill and Zouma for three spots, with a now-healthy Terry in reserve. Conte also seems bullish on Ola Aina, and Nathan Ake has been recalled. He’s ideally a wing-back, perhaps, but in a pinch could probably prove a serviceable center-half for a match or two.
What about Michy Batshuayi? The question here is whether the team would prefer he go out on loan so he can get more playing time. If so, then we’d need to bring in a striker to deputize for Diego Costa. However, it can be notoriously difficult to acclimate strikers to a new side mid-season, and it seems unlikely that Chelsea would be able to improve upon the current situation in the short term.
There are good questions to be asked about other younger players. Today’s performance by the nigh-invisible Ruben Loftus-Cheek, for instance, makes you wonder if he has any role to play this season or beyond. There was once a great deal of optimism about RLC’s future, but the sad fact is that we have seen little evidence suggesting that he’s a top-of-the-table talent. Whether in January or in the summer, it probably makes sense to move him on, probably to a mid- or bottom-of-the-table side where he has a better chance to make an impact.
The rest of the side is everything you could probably want and then some. Even Pedro, whose acquisition originally made not a lick of sense, has been a solid contributor, especially now that Conte has switched to a 3-4-3. Pedro’s value has always been highest when deployed as a winger in a three-man front line, and there is zero question at all about the high level of his effort this season.
If it is decided to loan out younger players (like Batman), of course, then Chelsea would need to replace them on the bench.
However, unlike some years, the team simply doesn’t have any glaring needs. The weakest link in the preferred 11, Cahill, has performed fairly well in the 3-4-3 (especially with Marcos Alonso sitting in front of him in the Garysitter role). The Blues are outstanding in the net, and the goals-against stats (15 in 20 matches – only Spurs have been better at 14) don’t lie about the effectiveness of back line. N’Golo Kante is probably the best holding midfielder in the world, and some tinkering with his positioning vis-a-vis Namanja Matic a few games into the season has made it hellishly hard for opposing teams to get out of their own end with any continuity, and forget about setting up shop in the Chelsea defensive third. Costa? Hazard? Willian? Moses? What needs saying?
In the end, I can’t recall a time when I felt like Chelsea had less work to do in the January window than this year. If there are injuries to key players in the next couple of weeks the equation perhaps changes, but for the moment the smart thing to do appears to be … not much of anything.