Chelsea Handed Major Chance to Make up Lost Ground in Gentler October


London – Most of the Premier League attention will be on Anfield and the north-west derby on Saturday, even if Liverpool’s stuttering start to the season means Jürgen Klopp’s side already have seven points to make up on Manchester United. For different reasons that will probably suit Crystal Palace and Chelsea, who meet at Selhurst Park in one of the lesser London derbies.

Roy Hodgson said his struggling Palace side were like a boxer on the ropes after their last outing at Old Trafford, trying to fight in a class above their weight and taking too many blows to the chin. Just what you need in those circumstances is a visit from the defending champions, though the only sliver of good news for Hodgson and his stricken side – apart from Wilfried Zaha nearing a return – is that Saturday’s game is the last of a daunting run of fixtures. Palace take on Chelsea after two successive trips to Manchester, where City and then United hit them with a total of nine goals to no reply.

Normality resumes a week after Chelsea, in the form of a trip to Newcastle. Not exactly a doddle, but that’s the Premier League for you. After three Champions League sides in a row, Palace just have to be grateful for opponents more familiar with the Championship.

Hodgson is right in saying his side will not have to face top-four teams every week, though the awkward truth is that they have not been doing so. Admittedly mostly before he arrived, Palace were also beaten and held scoreless by such Premier League powerhouses as Southampton, Burnley, Swansea and Huddersfield. As Burnley are now sixth as a result of picking up points against some of the stronger sides around, it seems the Palace chairman, Steve Parish, blundered in not recruiting Sean Dyche in summer when he appeared to have the chance.

It remains to be seen whether Hodgson can turn Palace around in time to secure survival but no one is kidding themselves that the season will not be one long relegation battle after the most unpromising of starts. Should Hodgson succeed from here he will deserve even more credit than Tony Pulis and Sam Allardyce for Palace’s latest astounding feat of escapology.

With each side having played seven games, this is the stage of the season when most of the zeros have disappeared from the Premier League table. Most of the way down there are only two that remain – no defeats yet for either Manchester City or Manchester United – but then you reach the bottom line and Palace have four of their own. No wins, no draws, no goals and no points. Hodgson’s side have twice as many zeros to their name as the rest of the division put together and, depending on what mood Chelsea are in, the situation may not have significantly altered by Saturday night.

Chelsea’s mood will not be improved by defeat in their last match against Manchester City, or by the hamstring injury Álvaro Morato picked up that is likely keep him on the sidelines for another week, though on the other hand the news from Belgium appears to be that Eden Hazard is fully recovered.

Chelsea never seem to kick on from winning the title; not since José Mourinho’s first couple of years in England has one successful season been followed by another. They managed to sack both Carlo Ancelotti and Mourinho the season after their next two titles and it was hardly a surprise to hear Antonio Conte yearning for a return to his native Italy so soon after delivering the latest.

Given Chelsea’s record no one could blame him for fearing the worst, although that wily old fox Claudio Ranieri probably read the situation most accurately when suggesting Conte was simply disappointed with the club’s summer transfer business and apprehensive about what was turning into an uneven financial contest with the two Manchester clubs. Romelu Lukaku, in other words. Or perhaps, come January, Lukaku and Alexis Sánchez.

Yet before writing Chelsea off as also-rans it might be as well to remember that this time last year they were not doing particularly well either. They had just been thumped 3-0 by Arsenal and Conte was so dismayed he decided to change his system. They came back after the international break with three at the back and wing-backs, handed out a 3-0 thumping of their own to the defending champions, Leicester City, and never looked back.

It is already clear that Chelsea miss Diego Costa’s aggressive input up front, although Morata when fit has shown plenty of promise, though it is equally evident that Lukaku is working for United in a way that Conte must have hoped he would at Stamford Bridge. Especially bearing in mind that Conte probably thought Lukaku was coming as a replacement when ill-advisedly alienating Costa.

Again, it may be best not to form too hasty a judgment. While Lukaku at present leads the Premier League goalscorers’ table, United have not had the most demanding of starts to the league season. On Saturday at Liverpool they will be facing a side from the top half of the table for the first time. Chelsea, in contrast, have already come up against Arsenal, City and Spurs. Among the criticisms leveled at Lukaku after his move for an initial £75m from Everton, in addition to the legitimate concerns that his first touch is unreliable and his proportion of missed chances high, was that he does not always perform against top opposition. The cricketing expression would be flat-track bully, for Lukaku’s record suggests he picks up a lot of his goals against lesser teams and does not show up so well in games against title contenders.

The same could be said of Everton, of course, who did not always provide Lukaku with a platform to score against leading sides, so now he is at United he should have a better chance to answer his critics. Beginning this month, for in addition to Liverpool on Saturday United will meet Tottenham before the end of October. Spurs themselves face Liverpool and United in their next three games, meaning Liverpool have United and Spurs in the same period.

If Lukaku can keep up his scoring sequence through October he will go a long way to proving his worth. Conte will probably end up even more disappointed should that happen, though on paper there is no reason why Chelsea too should not have another productive October. While teams above and around them are playing each other, Chelsea’s next three games involve Palace, Watford and Bournemouth.

While it is a truth universally acknowledged that there are no easy games in the Premier League, it perhaps might be admitted that some runs of fixtures are slightly gentler than others, and Palace, Watford and Bournemouth certainly sounds a gentler October than the month facing United, Spurs and Liverpool. As ever, Champions League exertions can easily upset domestic calculations, though at least Chelsea’s game against Roma is at home, as is their Carabao Cup tie against Everton.

October, in short, could put the smile back on Conte’s face. Chelsea will know it is time to worry if he is still dropping hints about returning home come the end of the month.

The Guardian Sport

Everton’s Lukaku-Shaped Hole Leaves Praise of Summer Buys Looking Hollow


London — An ancient cliche was conspicuous by its absence when Everton’s owner, Farhad Moshiri, gave Ronald Koeman a vote of confidence the other day. Older football followers in particular might have noted that in reporting it hardly anyone used the word “dreaded”.

Presumably it is safe to say votes of confidence are still dreaded, because no manager particularly wants one and they still tend to mean what they always meant, that the stay of execution will be terminated anyway if results cannot be quickly improved.

But the V of C itself does not seem to belong in the Premier League era; it is a throwback to the dim and distant past and the sort of relationship between chairman and manager encapsulated in The Damned United when Jim Broadbent spells out the facts of football life to Michael Sheen in the middle of the pitch at a deserted Baseball Ground. The facts of football life being that managers are easy to remove and easy to replace, and therefore occupy the lowest rung of importance on the payroll, way below the players.

Things have changed a little since, not least owing to Brian Clough proving some of his former employers wrong. Managers are held to be highly important these days, and paid on that basis, with contractual safeguards to deter all but the most trigger-happy of chairmen from dismissing them on a whim. But what is also new in the present era is the fortnight-long international break, an uncomfortable period for any club going into enforced inaction on the back of a poor result, and Moshiri probably acted wisely and fairly in stating the club’s position clearly at the outset to try to give Koeman and his staff some backing and breathing space.

Whether Koeman deserves it after a disappointing start to the season remains a matter of lively debate, though Everton’s unfortunate opening serves to highlight another aspect of modern football, namely that it is difficult to gauge a club’s development on the field from its perceived success in the transfer window. Each year before the summer trading finishes a notional league table is drawn up based on comparative spending and quality of acquisition. Some clubs are judged to have bought well, others to have bought badly, and still others will be accused of not buying at all. Then the actual season commences, and within weeks these projections based on expenditure will be shown to be useless.

Remember Manchester City being mocked for spending a fortune on full-backs? Now those very acquisitions are being credited with the success of Pep Guardiola’s gameplan at Stamford Bridge, albeit with Fabian Delph standing in for Benjamin Mendy. Chelsea themselves were deemed to have had an underwhelming summer of transfer business, yet apart from the first-day shambles against Burnley seemed to be putting some impressive results together until injury struck Álvaro Morata.

Everton remain the attention grabbers here though, for they appear to have fallen into the trap of enjoying spending the proceeds of Romelu Lukaku’s sale without remembering why Manchester United were willing to fork out £75m up front. They were widely considered to have had a productive summer, at least up to the point where they admitted they would not be getting hold of Olivier Giroud. Koeman was praised for acting early and decisively, and the captures of Jordan Pickford and Michael Keane were greeted as signs of ambition and proof that the club was investing for the long-term.

Wayne Rooney’s return could not be dressed up in quite the same way, and the inactivity after missing out on Giroud must have been disappointing for a manager who continually stressed his desire for a goalscoring target man to replace Lukaku, but the window appeared to end happily when Everton parted with a record fee to sign the long-term attacking target Gylfi Sigurdsson.

Except when the season started it became clear that not only Rooney and Sigurdsson but also Davy Klaassen had been signed for the same position, while the gaping hole left by the departing big fella in front of them had not been filled. Not even Koeman, it transpires, can see Dominic Calvert-Lewin or Sandro Ramírez maturing in time, and Rooney, just as Manchester United watchers warned, simply looks over-mature.

Burnley, in contrast, received few accolades for activity or imagination in the market over the summer, even though they broke their transfer record by paying Leeds £15m for Chris Wood. The New Zealand striker seemed to be just a duplication or a slight upgrade on players the club already possessed – the same could also be said of Jack Cork, Jon Walters, Charlie Taylor and Phil Bardsley – but the key here seems to be that Burnley had a good balance and a strong work ethic and quite sensibly decided not to disrupt anything.

Burnley are now being hailed as a tight, well-disciplined unit who play as a team and fight for every minute of the 90. Nothing new there – that was pretty much their hallmark last season – yet suddenly they are finding points easier to come by and proving troublesome opponents for even the biggest clubs. All on a modest budget with no great dramas in the transfer window. Sometimes, in fact, the size of some clubs’ budgets gets in the way. Arsène Wenger said a couple of years ago that people would have laughed if he had nipped over to France and come back with Riyad Mahrez, because people expected Arsenal signings to cost at least £10m. Maybe Koeman felt the same when it came to replacing £75m Lukaku. He said he wanted a target man but didn’t get his wish, yet Burnley picked one up for £15m, while Spurs landed the admittedly 32-year-old Fernando Llorente for a little less.

That is not to suggest either would have solved Everton’s problems, or even that Wood’s goals have been behind Burnley’s rise to sixth place. Just to point out that options are always available. The manager who claimed he didn’t want to go down to option C or D after missing out on Giroud has been left with his option Z, otherwise known as Oumar Niasse. It is unclear what Moshiri thinks about that, though plain to see that, despite bringing in half a dozen new players over summer, Everton failed to address the most notable departure.

Collectively that is quite an embarrassment for a club that pinched Steve Walsh from Leicester to head up player recruitment. No one imagined it would be easy to replace Lukaku; there are not many players of similar size and ability around, and whoever Everton brought in might have found it difficult living up to his predecessor’s strike rate. But Lukaku was always going – whatever else Everton say they cannot pretend they were caught on the hop. And after only seven league games two of the most frequently asked questions around Goodison over the past few years – are Everton a one-man team, and however will they manage without Lukaku? – now have answers. They just happen to be unflattering ones, and there are three months to wait for the next transfer window.

The Guardian Sport

Antonio Conte is Not Alone in Brushing Up His Football English


London — Antonio Conte was snapped on the beach this week basking in the Italian sun, taking time off during the international break. Cue a few jokes about budgie smugglers, whether Diego Costa was invited and why, after a year in England, Conte was caught reading a book called Football English: Soccer Vocabulary for Learners of English, by Tom Challenger.

The book is a practical guide to football-specific phrases and terminology. It is broken up into thematic chapters – there is one for coaches and one for training – and set at three levels of difficulty. It is not a phrasebook, though. It is written entirely in English, so one needs a basic understanding of the language before one can start. “There’s nothing special about football English,” says Challenger, presumably referring to the vernacular rather than the book. “Within that community of speakers, however, they use particular phrases more often than others and I tried to identify those in the book.”

Challenger teaches English as a foreign language in Vienna, where he lives with his wife and trilingual child (German, English and Hungarian). His book was the result not of a gap in any market but a desire to improve his CV as a teacher. Over two years he hand-built a database of articles, press releases and interview transcripts from which he worked out the most commonly used terms.

“The idea is to give you the most useful language,” Challenger says. “The first chapter, for example, deals with what wages are and the fact in the UK we quote the salary per week. I think they should know what a cone is, what a marker is, what the outside of the boot is, because we tend to say boot rather than the outside of the foot. They should know what the difference is between manager and coach. Though that’s not really well defined.”

Conte, after the transfer window he has just had, can probably identify with that final statement. For Challenger, who was not aware of his newfound tabloid infamy when the Guardian spoke to him, what started out as a résumé enhancer has become a nice little earner (with an emphasis on the little). He self-published online and copies of the book are printed on demand. He estimates that, given the hours worked and the copies sold, he has made at least minimum wage from his endeavours.

Sales have also been rising year on year and Challenger suspects word is getting round in an industry increasingly using English as a second language, whether in the UK or not. “There’s actually a lot of English teaching going on within Premier League academies,” he says. “I also noted the Man United soccer school franchise bought 150 copies at one point. But it’s useful, too, for players in Austria who might want to learn English before a possible move or for players in a new league who use English as they adapt to the domestic language.”

Given the exposure provided by Conte, Challenger may expect an extra boost in sales yet. And as for the Italian, there is no shame in brushing up further on his football English. The intricacies, after all, can often be subtle. “One phrase that’s difficult to explain is ‘being let go’,” he says. “In many languages they won’t have a different word for leaving your job because it was your fault or just because of bad luck. In German, in fact, they don’t have that word.” Wonder if that is also true in Italian?

The Guardian Sport

Premier League: 10 Talking Points from the Weekend’s Action


London- 1) Chalobah’s weird weekend

Nathaniel Chalobah had an eventful match for Watford on Saturday. By dummying the ball at the suggestion of Bournemouth’s Harry Arter he inadvertently reminded the world of the subclause to Law 12 which states a player should be cautioned if he “verbally distracts an opponent during play”. The England Under-21s midfielder missed two good chances to score; a header and a one-on-one. He gave the ball away several times. But in only his second Premier League start Chalobah also led the match in both tackles and dribbles. It was his breakaway sprint that proved to be the catalyst for the opening goal. Rumours suggest the former Chelsea youth player might get a call-up for the upcoming England squad. Chalobah is still raw but the potential is apparent. And the next time someone shouts “leave” at him, he will surely think twice. Paul MacInnes

2) West Brom survive without Evans

Jonny Evans was missing with an injury – and not, Tony Pulis insisted, because the centre-back is agitating for a move to Manchester City – but the absence of the Northern Ireland defender did not prevent West Bromwich Albion from producing another masterclass at the back. While bad defending has been a theme in the first two weeks of the Premier League season, West Brom remain reliably stingy. Their new Egyptian defender, Ahmed Hegazy, impressed again and they have opened their campaign with consecutive 1-0 victories, beating Burnley despite being restricted to 32% of the possession at Turf Moor. Just like Bournemouth the previous weekend, Burnley struggled to create openings. West Brom may not always be exciting to watch but plenty oftheir rivals could learn from their organisation. The difficulties their opponents encounter while trying to break them down explains why Pulis’s men are likely to be free from relegation fears again. Jacob Steinberg

3) Benítez needs to improve forward line

Alan Shearer thinks it is going to be another long season for Newcastle, and it is not necessary to be a goalscorer of his pedigree to see why. For a club with a proud tradition of imposing centre-forwards, Rafa Benítez’s side look alarmingly lightweight up front and early indications are that the strikers who got them out of the Championship are going to struggle for goals in the Premier League. Newcastle have not managed to score in two matches, Dwight Gayle was brought off against Huddersfield, Joselu did little at Stoke to suggest he might be the answer to the Toon Army’s prayers, and even when Newcastle went behind Aleksandar Mitrovic did not make it off the bench. Benítez knows how to set up a team but he must realise – and his weary expression indicates he might – that Newcastle need more aggression and a greater goal threat to stand a chance. “We do some things well but we must improve,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how well organised you are, you have to score goals.” Paul Wilson

4) Maguire slots straight in at Leicester

Wise old heads in the Leicester City media suite – and contrary to popular belief, it is quite hard to watch thousands of football matches without learning at least something about the sport, even if only by osmosis – were being shaken after watching the Foxes toying with the Seagulls. On the evidence so far, it is going to be a cruelly long season. Not so for Leicester, of course, though retaining the services of Riyad Mahrez, likely to be the subject of renewed attention from Roma and others after another impishly creative performance, may be beyond them. Harry Maguire looks an excellent signing, though, at least the equal of Robert Huth and Wes Morgan in central defence, while his distribution gives City another dimension going forward. It will be interesting to see how Craig Shakespeare plans to use Kelechi Iheanacho once the former Manchester City forward recovers from a toe injury; get that dynamic right and qualifying for another European campaign is not out of the question. Richard Rae

5) Sadio Mané more important than ever

In the continued absence of Philippe Coutinho, Sadio Mané gave a timely reminder of Liverpool’s threat in attack. The Senegal international’s second‑half winner was gifted by the Palace midfielder Luka Milivojevic but Jürgen Klopp, understandably, was keen to draw attention to the pressing and sharpness that also shaped his team’s victory. “I’m not too happy about singing the big song about a player this early in the season,” the Liverpool manager said. “But Sadio is important, everybody can see now he can change a game and that’s cool. He can learn so much still, that’s really good. Sadio made a decision at the end which is very important. He’s there in those situations. It’s not the same goal but it was a little bit like the Everton goal when he was quickest in mind [in the late win at Goodison Park last season]. Everyone thinks about how quick he is with his legs, and that’s true, but he’s quick in mind. That’s maybe the more impressive skill.” Andy Hunter

6) Allen praises Mark Hughes’s clever signings

Before Saturday Mark Hughes was many bookmakers’ favourite to be the first manager sacked this season but his Stoke City team ridiculed those odds and diverted pressure on to Arsène Wenger. Jesé Rodríguez looks ready to prove a delightful addition to the Premier League and Hughes’s other recruits, Kurt Zouma and Darren Fletcher, backed up his declaration that Stoke are stronger this season. “This result says everything about Mark Hughes,” said Joe Allen. “He has been able to draw in players that maybe in the past Stoke City would not have been able to sign. He has that aura. This summer people have been voicing a lot of frustration about this, that and the other. But this result might have changed a few people’s views on him. Just spending money to get success – it’s not as simple as that. The lads we have brought in have all made an impact.” Paul Doyle

7) Forster and Hart do themselves few favours

Fraser Forster and Joe Hart could end up doing Jack Butland’s work for him at this rate, ahead of the World Cup in Russia next year, with neither goalkeeper covering themselves in glory at St Mary’s. West Ham’s porous defence hardly helped Hart, now beaten seven times in just two matches, but he again looked a shadow of his former dominating self. Forster was oddly rewarded with a shiny new five-year deal in July despite a shaky time last term. In fairness to Forster, he made a superb save to deny Diafra Sakho before Javier Hernández swept home his second goal and credit must go to the West Ham striker for reacting quickest inside the box. But there is no doubt that the giant 6ft 7in goalkeeper is not quite at his formidable best. The Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, another option for England, could also jump in front of the pair in the pecking order. Ben Fisher

8) Clement needs more staying power from strikers

You cannot blame Paul Clement for choosing damage limitation against Manchester United. With Gylfi Sigurdsson out and not much in, packing the defence was a sensible option, but that did mean that what attacking players Swansea had were in for a tricky afternoon. Tammy Abraham was the man asked to hold their forward line together and, while he was given only occasional support from Jordan Ayew, Clement wanted more from the Chelsea loanee. “They have to find ways at keeping the ball and enabling the team to get forward,” Clement said. “Their industry was good but I think it could have stuck up front with them a bit better.” Still, this was only Abraham’s second Premier League start. “It’s going to be a brilliant learning experience but he’s not here on work experience,” Clement said. “He’s here to deliver and I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before he starts scoring goals.” Nick Miller

9) Conte wants recruits to back up Wembley win

Events at Wembley reminded the world of Chelsea’s qualities. Antonio Conte’s team were rugged and effective, combative and victorious, with the manager’s tactical game-plan helping to squeeze out what had felt an improbable result. Yet, as if emboldened by a win, Conte was quick to remind the hierarchy in the aftermath that time is ticking in terms of making additions to his options. It was as if he was suggesting spirit and heart will take you only so far. “We know the club is trying to do its best in the transfer market to try and improve the team and the squad,” he said. That was another nudge in the ribs of Marina Granovskaia, Michael Emenalo and the recruitment department to ensure Chelsea’s pursuit of Danny Drinkwater, Ross Barkley, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Antonio Candreva, or even Virgil van Dijk, does not meander in the 11 days ahead. The tension has been eased, not eradicated. Dominic Fifield

10) Pochettino need not lose much sleep over defeat

The narrative of Tottenham’s Wembley hoodoo is likely to be fuelled by the defeat to Chelsea but Spurs played well for huge portions of the game and if anything their performance – in which they held two-thirds of possession and created double the number of chances that the champions did – suggested it will not be a case of having to battle through 38 away games this season. Christian Eriksen looked particularly sharp and one of his precise first-half deliveries deserved a goal. Mauricio Pochettino will not take much solace from the performance when points are currency in the Premier League, but Spurs could have earned something and Chelsea are due credit for repelling them. The fact remains, of course, that there is still a slight psychological hurdle that needs clearing, so beating Burnley at Wembley on Sunday seems essential before the international break. Lawrence Ostlere

The Guardian Sport

Chelsea Looking Ill-Equipped after a Summer of Stagnation


London – José Mourinho takes so many swings at so many perceived enemies that it is easy to forget there are times that he may be right. As his final season at Chelsea spiraled out of control, Mourinho flailed in all directions: at referees, at his medical staff, at opponents, at the media and eventually at his own players.

But with retrospect a couple of his jabs look well-directed. “I gave my club the report of the season projection on 21 April,” he said after the defeat by Crystal Palace in August 2015. “This is a moment for everybody to assume their responsibilities,” he added during his seven-minute monologue after the loss to Southampton. He had highlighted targets and the club – specifically the transfer committee comprising the director of football Michael Emenalo and the directors Marina Granovskaia and Eugene Tenenbaum – had failed to deliver them.

Nobody expects a similar collapse from Chelsea this season but now, as then, they begin their defense of the title after a Community Shield defeat by Arsenal following a summer of barely explicable stagnation and frustration. It is two and half weeks since Antonio Conte landed in Beijing on Chelsea’s pre-season tour and explicitly outlined how thin he felt the squad was. Since then no further players have been signed and even Gary Cahill, the image of the uncontroversial solid club pro, was moved after the Community Shield to point out the disparity in the length of the squad lists on the back of the program.

The players who have arrived – Álvaro Morata, Tiémoué Bakayoko and Antonio Rüdiger – essentially replace players who have left (or are apparently leaving). A tight squad worked last season because Chelsea were lucky with injuries and had no European football. They cannot hope to get away with it again.

Chelsea have excelled in recent years at selling players at a profit, often when they have barely made an appearance and the aim to make the club self-sufficient is a laudable one. But their strategy clearly has flaws. The squad might look rather healthier had Nathaniel Chalobah and Dominic Solanke not become so disillusioned their lack of game time that they left, and had Tammy Abraham (among a host of others) not been sent out on loan, but given their departures, there is a clear lack of cover at wing-back, in the creative midfield positions and at center-forward.

A small part of the mess, it should be acknowledged, is of Conte’s making. Had he not sent Diego Costa that text in June telling the striker he was not in his plans for next season, then he would at least have the option of the 28-year-old. Costa burgled late goals in both Chelsea’s first two games of last season to get them off to a decent start; with Eden Hazard injured and Morata settling in, that sort of streetwise opportunism might have been quite useful this time round as well.

As it is, Costa remains in limbo, his probable transfer to Atlético on hold because of their transfer ban. But in a sense of more long-term significance than the specifics of who will conjure goals for Chelsea is the issue of why Conte sent that text in the first place. Perhaps it was just clumsy diplomacy, a desire to make a clean break. The striker’s level, after all, had dipped significantly after January when a mooted transfer to China didn’t materialize – only five of his 20 league goals came in the final four months of the season.

Even then it seems strange that Conte, who does not seem a man to shirk confrontation, would choose to text rather than meet face-to-face or phone.

There is a danger with Chelsea of seeing Machiavellian games at every turn, of assuming the spirit of Mourinho has so permeated the walls at Stamford Bridge that nobody does anything without an ulterior motive, but it does not seem a ridiculous explanation to suggest the text may have been meant to force the club’s hand. The text leaked, as Conte must have known it would, and once it did, it became all but impossible for Costa to remain at Chelsea. Even then, Chelsea allowed themselves to be gazumped for Romelu Lukaku.

Conte is clearly unhappy about transfer policy. His comment, “You have to ask the club about this,” when asked last Friday about the sale of Nemanja Matic to Manchester United made clear what he thought. He followed that up this week by describing Matic as “a gross loss, a great loss”.

His post-Community Shield performance, meanwhile, was a masterpiece of passive aggression, refusing to take questions about the make-up of the squad on the grounds he had answered the same questions two days earlier. If all managers refused to answer questions they have recently addressed, most clubs could probably get away with two or three press-conferences a season, as Conte must be well aware: a point was being made.

With Hazard and Bakayoko ruled out for the start of the season, and with Chelsea facing Tottenham, Everton, Arsenal and Manchester City before the end of September, the deficiencies in the squad have been brought into sharp relief. Conte is clearly unhappy, and the squad at the moment looks frankly inadequate. As and when new signings arrive, there will be enormous pressure on them to settle instantly.

Once again Chelsea begin a season as champions far closer to crisis that seemed possible in May. And this time, Mourinho cannot be blamed.

The Guardian Sport

Antonio Conte Frustrated over Chelsea Transfers but Club will not Bow


London – Antonio Conte will be given short shrift by the Chelsea hierarchy if he attempts to exert greater control over the Premier League champions’ recruitment policy amid suggestions the manager is growing frustrated at the club’s failure to make early inroads in the summer market.

Reports have emerged in Italy, where Conte is on holiday with his family, that he may be considering his future, with his preferred profile of transfer targets and the number of proposed recruits apparently at odds with that of the board. The club are relaxed about the situation and insist the 47-year-old has not communicated such displeasure directly. They fully expect Conte to be in charge when the season begins in August.

Yet it is perhaps telling the contract extension to 2021 on improved terms, made to Conte towards the end of the league campaign, which would establish him as the highest-paid manager in Chelsea’s history, has still to be signed. He is wary of what awaits next term when his team will defend their title while returning to the Champions League after a season’s absence. With that in mind, he had hoped to make a significant number of additions, strengthening the first team with players of experience, and envisaged the influx of players would have been under way by now.

It is understood his instinct was to target players such as Leonardo Bonucci at his former club Juventus, a player who has turned 30 and would cost in excess of £50m together with a hefty wage package. Virgil van Dijk had long been earmarked as a potential arrival but Liverpool’s interest in the player – together with the uncertainty over the managerial situation at Southampton, who sacked Claude Puel this week – has significantly increased the Dutch defender’s valuation.

Conte was also disappointed that more effort was not made to secure the Belgium forward Dries Mertens from Napoli before the 30-year-old signed a contract at the Serie A club. The manager has also pushed for the signing of Juve’s Alex Sandro or Bayern Munich’s David Alaba at left wing-back, and watched with frustration as Manchester City, in particular, and Manchester United have made high-profile moves in the market.

There had been suggestions, again emanating from Italy, that Conte’s exasperation would lead him to push for greater influence over transfer policy, potentially wresting some control from the technical director, Michael Emenalo, despite always admitting his forte lies more on the training pitch. Yet Chelsea’s strategy in the market has proved highly successful over recent years, for all the regular upheaval of the management staff, with two Premier League titles secured in the past three seasons. Players are bought and developed, and invariably sold at a profit if they do not make their mark, not least those who graduate through the youth academy.

The manager was irritated by a lack of arrivals early last summer but the decisions to target N’Golo Kanté, Marcos Alonso and David Luiz, players of some pedigree, ultimately proved decisive in the Premier League pursuit.

Neither that recruitment structure, which leans heavily on Emenalo as well as input, usually towards the end of deals, from the director Marina Granovskaia, nor the transfer strategy is going to bend for Conte, who has enjoyed the unbridled backing of the board since taking up the reins last summer. The owner, Roman Abramovich, was supportive while the team endured early teething trouble and backed his manager as players learned to live with the Italian’s demanding training schedule and approach.

Abramovich’s presence at the club’s Cobham training complex over three days last September, in the wake of a damaging 3-0 loss at Arsenal, was designed to demonstrate the manager was being backed, with the owner making a point of sitting with the coaching staff in the canteen rather than mixing with the players, as he might have done in the past.

Chelsea still intend to spend heavily this summer, with the Monaco midfielder Tiemoué Bakayoko expected to become the first recruit for around £40m and interest retained in the Everton forward Romelu Lukaku, who could cost a world record fee. Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois will be offered new deals on improved terms, though agreements have not yet been reached. Neither will be sold this summer.

There has been disappointment at board level at the manner in which Conte addressed Diego Costa’s future last week, with the manager’s decision to inform the striker by text he was no longer in his plans apparently born of frustration over progress in the window.

That move, made public by Costa, has potentially cost Chelsea millions of pounds as it demonstrates the club’s eagerness to sell a player with two years left on his contract, weakening their negotiating position, and has prompted some tension behind the scenes.

Asmir Begovic has been sold to Bournemouth and is likely to be replaced by the former City goalkeeper Willy Caballero on a free transfer at the start of next month. Conte, who had been linked with a return to Italy at Internazionale only for Luciano Spalletti to take over as manager at San Siro, will expect more additions by the time he returns with his players for pre-season training at the beginning of July. He is expected to be joined in London by his wife Elisabetta and daughter Vittoria before the new season.

The Guardian Sport

Arsène Wenger Confirms he is still the Best Choice for Arsenal


London – Regardless of the result, this felt like a fitting end to the campaign – a match between two sides lining up with a three-man defense. It had, of course, been a 3-0 defeat at the Emirates in September which encouraged Antonio Conte to switch to his 3-4-3 system, and then Chelsea’s astonishing run of form seemingly encouraged Arsène Wenger to follow suit.

For all the pre-match speculation about Arsenal’s defensive problems and the controversial decision to play David Ospina rather than Petr Cech, Wenger’s key decision here was up front. For the 4-0 FA Cup final victory over Aston Villa two years ago, Wenger elected for the speed of Theo Walcott and omitted Olivier Giroud, and the extra pace forced Aston Villa’s defense to play deeper, creating space between the lines when their midfield tried to press, allowing Alexis Sánchez and Mesut Özil to run riot. Here, an almost identical thing happened – albeit with Danny Welbeck, rather than Walcott.

Welbeck was excellent throughout the first half, making dangerous runs into the channels and terrifying Chelsea’s backline with his speed. He played up against David Luiz, but made runs into wider positions, winning a foul from the usually unflappable César Azpilicueta when running in behind and later dragging Gary Cahill out of position for Özil’s good chance in the inside-right position.

But more than anything, it was the threat of Welbeck’s speed in behind that proved crucial. Chelsea started the game incredibly deep, surely much deeper than had they been playing against Giroud, which allowed Arsenal time on the ball in midfield. Sánchez’s opener was controversial, but it’s not often you feel a fourth-minute goal had been on the cards; Arsenal had started superbly.

Perhaps Chelsea wanted to play on the counterattack, seeking to expose Per Mertesacker’s lack of speed. But such a reactive strategy was less viable when 1-0 down so early. Conte came running out of his dugout to gesture for his players to push up the pitch, and center-forward Diego Costa made similar motions. But Chelsea looked extremely reluctant to press, and the positioning of their defensive line barely changed. When N’Golo Kanté and Nemanja Matic pushed forward, they were generally too slow to close down Aaron Ramsey and Granit Xhaka, who could prod the ball through the lines to Sánchez and Özil in space. Arsenal were dominant, storming forward on the counterattack and forcing a couple of set pieces, with Welbeck and then Ramsey hitting the post in quick succession, then Welbeck having a good chance on the left.

The onus was on Chelsea to get back into the game, and their first-half performance was so poor that you suspected Conte might change things even before half-time. Instead, he waited until the hour mark before inevitably summoning Cesc Fàbregas, whose absence from the Chelsea midfield in the first half exposed a lack of creativity in that zone. But Fàbregas barely had a chance to play his way into the game before Victor Moses received his marching orders with a second bookable offense for his dive in the Arsenal penalty area.

This was a new problem for Conte – the only previous red card shown to a Chelsea player this season was John Terry’s with Chelsea 3-0 ahead against Peterborough in the third round. Reshaping from a 3-4-3 isn’t simple, and so Chelsea ended up moving to a 4-3-1-1, with Azpilicueta sliding across to right-back. No one was out of position, but having played with a back three all season, Chelsea’s shape simply did not feel right.

Yet they got themselves back into the game through a very simple route – substitute Willian’s deep cross into Costa, who fired home via a Mertesacker deflection. But Arsenal’s unfamiliar backline had largely stood firm: Nacho Monreal made some excellent interceptions, Mertesacker was absolutely outstanding considering this was his first start for over a year, and young Rob Holding was confident enough to dish out some verbals to Costa in the opening stages, a moment that suggested Arsenal, for once, were not going to be bullied by Chelsea.

Chelsea were level for only two minutes, however. Welbeck had tired and was replaced by Giroud immediately after the equalizer. And while the Frenchman is less inclined to run in behind the opposition defense, that’s precisely what he did here, spinning into the left-hand channel before playing a blind – but perfectly-weighted – chip into the box, met by Ramsey’s typically well-timed run and simple header. Wenger is rarely praised for his tactical acumen, but he got his decision-making up front absolutely spot on, both with his initial selection and timing of the substitution.

In a wider context, too, Wenger has rarely demonstrated his strategic ability so impressively. His switch to a three-man defense prompted a run of nine wins from 10 matches, ending with this confident victory over the best side in the country. Wenger declared it one of the proudest victories of his Arsenal career, and in a tactical sense, considering his injury crisis in defense, it was perhaps the most impressive.

The Guardian Sport

Chelsea’s Victor Moses … Rediscovered by Antonio Conte


London – It was a decision that would change his career at Chelsea forever. But as Victor Moses prepared to embark on his fifth season at Stamford Bridge since joining from Wigan Athletic in 2012, the first he knew of it was when Antonio Conte broke the news before their trip to Hull City on October 1.

“He didn’t say to me: ‘Do you fancy playing wing-back?’ He just put me in there,” Moses recalled after the 3-0 victory over Middlesbrough on Monday that took Chelsea to within three points of a fifth Premier League title.

“After that he just kept on encouraging me and went through it with me, what the position was all about, mostly in training. And constantly he was talking to me in training to make sure I was improving in it, talking me through it. I took that in and I didn’t look back.”

Nearly a decade since he made his first-team debut at Crystal Palace at the age of 16, Moses has finally come of age. The schoolboy superstar who arrived in London as an asylum seeker after his parents were brutally murdered during religious riots in Nigeria’s north-western Kaduna province in 2002 is now an integral part of the Chelsea team having spent the best part of four years on the bench or on loan.

Before this season he had made only 12 Premier League starts for his parent club, with the spells at Liverpool, Stoke City and West Ham United having failed to convince José Mourinho of his worth. The arrival of Conte, who admitted he found it “incredible” how sparingly his predecessor had utilized him, changed all that. Moses has played an integral part in the Italian’s 3-4-3 system.

“I have always believed in the ability that I have got,” Moses reflected. “I have always known that I’ve got the ability to play in a big club like Chelsea. I have proved that. We have got a manager here that is willing to give everybody an opportunity.

“To be honest, I just wanted to play football,” he added. “It was at Hull that it all started. I really enjoyed it and I took everything in. I kept watching the video of myself after the Hull game, to make sure I was in the right place, and after that I took it in and kept on improving.”

A regular in England’s youth teams, Moses opted to switch allegiance to Nigeria in 2011 after growing frustrated with his lack of recognition. He was voted into the team of the tournament when the Super Eagles won the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations but had struggled to replicate that form for his country until the appointment of Gernot Rohr as coach last year. Now, with Nigeria in a strong position to reach the 2018 World Cup in Russia thanks to two goals from Moses against Algeria in November, he has emerged as a real contender to be named African player of the year.

“If Victor Moses wants to be [Lionel] Messi, he can be Messi,” said Daniel Amokachi, who was the assistant to Nigeria’s coach, Stephen Keshi, in 2013 and also comes from Kaduna. “It’s been a very long time since I’ve seen a player who has so many qualities. We have talked a lot. And what I told him, I told him every time. If you want to be the best that you can, then you have to work harder. In the past he was a player who can sometimes switch off. You speak to people who train with [Cristiano] Ronaldo and Messi and they tell you it is incredible how hard they work. That seems to have sunk in now thanks to Conte.”

The overall statistics do not necessarily bear that out in comparison with some of the best right-backs in the league, although Chelsea’s win percentage of 81 when Moses is in the side certainly speaks volumes.

In terms of distance covered, he is way behind Tottenham Hotspur’s Kyle Walker (272km to 312km from 32 games), while he also trails Everton’s Séamus Coleman in terms of goals and assists (three goals and two assists to Coleman’s four goals and three assists). Yet it has been his ability to adapt to Conte’s refined tactical approach which has underlined his importance to the champions-elect.

“It’s a big position. You need a lot of stamina to be able to play there, and it’s a responsibility,” said Moses. “I have been learning a lot defensively as well, the manager has been teaching me and I have taken everything in. When I play against a winger, because I’m a winger myself, I understand what they are going to do before they try and go past me, so it makes it a lot easier for me. The more games I play the better I get.”

Chelsea to Make Antonio Conte Highest-Paid Manager to Ward Off Inter


London – Chelsea are prepared to make Antonio Conte the highest-paid manager in their history and bankroll a lavish strengthening of his squad this summer as they seek to build on the team’s impressive Premier League title success.

Conte, who signed a three-year deal worth around £6.5m-a-season at Stamford Bridge last summer, is expected to open talks on new terms after next week’s FA Cup final. Chelsea are acutely aware the 47-year-old is coveted by Internazionale whose Chinese owners, Suning Holdings, removed the head coach Stefano Pioli last week after only six months in charge and would apparently be prepared to double Conte’s money to bring him to San Siro.

While the Italian has indicated an instinctive desire to remain at Stamford Bridge and lead his team into a Champions League campaign – he and his wife, Elisabetta, have been looking for schools in London for their daughter, Vittoria – Chelsea will seek to deflect Inter’s interest by offering Conte an improved contract which better reflects his startling achievements over a first season in England. He is currently paid less than Pep Guardiola, José Mourinho, Arsène Wenger and Jürgen Klopp, whose sides he has comfortably eclipsed this season.

Roman Abramovich is likely to offer him in excess of the £7.5m-a-year agreed with Mourinho in August 2015 after the Portuguese’s last title success for the club. Negotiations may still not be entirely straightforward, with Conte expected to seek the appointment of another Italian to his coaching staff when Steve Holland leaves the club this summer to become Gareth Southgate’s No2 with England on a permanent basis. Gabriele Oriali, a former player and sporting director who worked closely with Conte in the Italian national set-up, is a candidate for the role, though Inter have expressed an interest in taking him to San Siro. Chelsea had not envisaged adding to an already extensive coaching staff.

Conte will also seek greater input on recruitment, despite the close relationship he already enjoys with the sporting director, Michael Emenalo, and the influential football club and plc board member, Marina Granovskaia. But both manager and owner, ever conscious that Chelsea’s squad were fortunate with injuries this season, – Conte has publicly praised the medical staff – recognize the need to add depth to the playing staff if the team are to compete effectively in the Champions League.

The club are seeking to strengthen up and down their spine in deals which could cost in excess of £200m as a throwback to the lavish spending of Abramovich’s early days in charge. The Everton forward Romelu Lukaku, who is keen to return to Chelsea, and Alexis Sánchez are both targets, though persuading Arsenal to part with the latter may prove problematic. There is strong interest in the France midfielder Tiemoué Bakayoko, a key member of the Monaco team who lead Ligue 1 and reached the Champions League semi-finals, and the Southampton center-half, Virgil van Dijk.

Conte, who hopes to achieve Chelsea’s second Double with victory at Wembley over Arsenal, is targeting two high caliber players in every position, a strategy that may also see the addition of two wing-backs to challenge Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses, for all their considerable contribution this term. The manager would ideally seek to add either Juventus’s Alex Sandro or David Alaba of Bayern Munich to his ranks.

John Terry will depart under freedom of contract, ending a glittering 22-year association with the club, while Nathan Aké could seek a fresh start elsewhere on a permanent basis. It remains to be seen whether Diego Costa, subject of strong interest from Tianjin Quanjian, is still at the club in August. The Spain forward, contracted until 2019, was unsettled mid-season but indicated last week it is far from certain he will move to China.

Chelsea will also be resisting attempts by Real Madrid to lure star midfielder Eden Hazard to come to the Bernabeu and the club will likely offer the Belgian a new contract to make him stay at Stamford Bridge.

Antonio Conte’s Brilliance Has Turned Chelsea’s Pop-up Team into Champions


London – The manager inherited a mess but has glued together a title-winning side with his tactical nous, fierce work ethic and by bringing back the fun. After an extended, processional run-in that started as a head-down sprint away from the peloton and settled into an imperious push from the front, Chelsea are once again champions of the Premier League. Friday night’s crowning victory at The Hawthorns was the 25th in 30 league matches since Antonio Conte’s decisive re-gearing of his team in September, the tactical switches that have coaxed such a thrilling run from this team of bolt-ons and upcycled squad players, most notably Victor Moses, who was dredged out of the laundry bin in the autumn to become a key part of the title surge.

This feels like a significant league title in more ways than one. It is now 14 years since Roman Abramovich emerged as a spendthrift presence in west London. Five titles and a Champions League win have now sealed Chelsea’s place as the dominant English club of that period. For all the glories of the Ferguson end-game, Manchester City’s rise and Arsenal’s unflinching desire to finish in the top four and occasionally win the FA Cup, this is now Chelsea’s mini-era.

Not to mention confirmation if any were needed of elite English football’s main subtext since the turn of the century, the transformational dominance of overseas billionaire investment. Just as significant in the long term, Chelsea were also granted permission this season for their new on-site mega-stadium, a 60,000-seat upgrade that will mean the current Stamford Bridge is razed and replaced by something that looks like a vast alien space yurt made of giant Martian redwood stems.

It is another pointer toward Abramovich’s vast capital expenditure. But also a firm move towards the oft-promised sustainable future. Such talk chimes with the season just past and with Conte’s own kitchen-sink achievement in taking a team with net spend of £20m this season to a dominant league title.

It is Conte’s part in this that shines through, not just as an example of ruthlessly detailed coaching and man management, but as something new also. There have been 11 changes of manager during that run of Chelsea trophies, with the implication always that the structures and hierarchy are what really keep this club rolling on.

In Conte Chelsea have something different, a manager who inherited a messy, enervated squad fresh from the worst title defense in 25 years and threw a lightning bolt through pretty much the same group of players to create a fresh champion team.

Conte has broken the mold further with the suggestion he might escape the Abramovich cleaver, becoming the first of his line to leave by his own volition. Those recurrent noises in Italy about a move to Internazionale have resurfaced this week. It seems overwhelmingly likely Conte will stay, pay rise pending. But it is a feat of rare political skill to have made himself so unusually vital to the current success.

How has he done it? Attention has focused on the much-celebrated switch to playing a back three after the defeats by Liverpool and Arsenal in September. Chelsea were crunching about in reverse gear at the time. Reports have suggested senior management were underwhelmed by performances. Conte had arrived a week early despite spending his summer with Italy at the Euros. Exhausted, he went home during the international break to see his family and brood. On his return the team that faced Hull City had been reconfigured. Moses wasn’t overly drilled, just told he would be playing right wing-back, that Conte had seen enough to know.

It will be tempting to compare that switch to the shift Conte made in his first season at Juventus, when he rejigged his formation to find a way of placing Arturo Vidal at the heart of his team. This was different, a profound resizing of angles and personnel that has made every part clunk into place, with key players given roles that emphasize their strengths and mitigate their weaknesses.

A moment of wider clarity, but one that Conte had been working towards. “It takes time to accept the sheer amount of work he is asking of you,” Luca Marrone, an Italy Under-21 midfielder who played under Conte at Juve told the Guardian this year. “Everything he does, in preparation or tactical organization, is done with maniacal precision and attention to detail. It can be overwhelming at first. But when you realize by buying into it you can win things, you follow.”

Senior players were skeptical to begin with, startled by Conte’s aggressively interventionist training sessions, practice constantly stopped by that barking voice, points of positional detail brutally drilled. In part Conte pulled this off because his manner and his own playing record demand respect. But also he brought back the fun, encouraging a familial atmosphere with barbecues, bottles of wine handed out, and bonding sessions with players and club staff.

N’Golo Kanté embodies both sides of this, a player whose early scratchiness was soothed with glorious results in the new 3-4-3 formation, allowed simply to be his best, most wonderfully mobile, diligent, destructive self. Plus Kanté is something new. Get this: Chelsea have the most popular player in the league, a man nobody could seriously boo, albeit even the notably lovable Kanté is perhaps a little fetishised in his humility, his scooter-riding, the Premier League’s own friendly, scuttling Bilbo Baggins.

The system locked David Luiz into his perfect role, given protection by that meaty wedge in front. Both wing-backs are allowed simply to steam up and down their flanks following the line of possession. The attacking three have also been allowed to bloom. Liberated from deep defensive duties Eden Hazard has become more expressive, more obviously, flashily complete. Not to mention more saleable too, his role closer to the way Europe’s monied giants in Spain and France allow their stars to function.

Where to rank this Chelsea team, even among recent versions at the same club, is another question. Six months old, a half-season project, they are already more watchable and more coherent than the second phase of the title-winning team of two years ago; but not at the level of the luminous, steamrollering Mourinho Mk1 team, a rare concurrence of prime-cut talent and a manager in the sweet spot of his own powers.

But then this is essentially a pop-up team, glued into place brilliantly, with certain parts already chafing and smoking. Chelsea’s two top goalscorers could be off in a month, Diego Costa to cause an international incident in China, Hazard to the usual summer suspects. Plus of course for all the excitement at Conte using only 18 different players in the starting XI in the league, rotation has been stilled only because Chelsea haven’t needed it, often playing only one game a week.

When the team might have tired from that hard-running style they have had days to rest. When first Sam Allardyce and then José Mourinho exposed a certain weakness against a two-man attack, and also when the “supply” players, Hazard and Pedro, were man-marked, Conte had a week to drill his team and patch this up.

Next season will, as ever, be a different matter, another problem for Conte to solve as he looks to extend his personal record of four straight league titles in club football across England and Italy. Given his hunger for more – more time, more detail, more work – only the brave or the foolish would bet against him.