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Everything is different for Chelsea ahead of this Premier League season

Chelsea kick off their Premier League title defence at home to Burnley on Saturday, and the unbridled joy that drenched Stamford Bridge in May has been clouded by anxiety over the course of a fractious and frustrating summer.

Diego Costa, last season’s top scorer, is spending the final weeks of his Chelsea career milling around with friends and family in Brazil. Eden Hazard, the club’s most talented player, missed the entirety of preseason with a broken ankle. Most ominous of all, Antonio Conte, the man who masterminded the return of the Premier League trophy to Stamford Bridge, is anticipating the toughest test of his managerial career.

Chelsea have struggled more than many of their rivals to navigate what Conte this week described as a “crazy transfer market.” Embarrassed by Manchester United in the battle for £75 million striker Romelu Lukaku, they reacted well to secure Alvaro Morata from Real Madrid for £60m instead. Tiemoue Bakayoko (£40m), Antonio Rudiger (£34m) and Willy Caballero (free) have also arrived, but many other targets — most notably Juventus wing-back Alex Sandro — have proven unattainable.

Compounding the recruitment problem has been the deluge of departures. Nemanja Matic, Nathan Ake, Asmir Begovic, Nathaniel Chalobah, John Terry, Kurt Zouma and Ruben Loftus-Cheek have all been allowed to leave permanently or on loan, shedding an already lean squad of much of its depth.

Ahead of the FA Community Shield at Wembley on Saturday, the vast difference in size of the squad lists of Arsenal and Chelsea on the back of the match day programme swept social media. The 24 names that featured for the Blues included the exiled Costa and departing Loic Remy, as well as academy youngsters Andreas Christensen, Charly Musonda Jr., Jeremie Boga and Fikayo Tomori, who can list one Premier League appearance between them.

In fact, only 16 players currently at Chelsea have started a Premier League match in their careers — the joint-lowest total of any Blues squad at the beginning of a season in the Roman Abramovich era. With both Costa and Remy out of first-team consideration and Hazard injured, Conte can call upon just 13 against Burnley on Saturday (though Morata and Rudiger will provide additional experienced options.)

To find another Chelsea squad with just 16 Premier League starters ahead of a new season, you have to go back to the summer of 2004. The context, however, was very different. Abramovich was spending lavish sums to turn the Blues into title winners and sanctioned the signings of Petr Cech, Paulo Ferreira, Arjen Robben, Didier Drogba, Ricardo Carvalho, Mateja Kezman and Tiago — all proven performers in other major European leagues.

Jose Mourinho led Chelsea to the title that season, and he repeated the trick in 2014-15 with only 17 players who had started a Premier League match before the first ball had been kicked. In 2014, as in 2004, however, elite foreign acquisitions played a significant role — in this case Costa, Thibaut Courtois and Filipe Luis, three key cogs in an Atletico Madrid team that had performed miracles in La Liga and the Champions League the previous season.

Factoring in every year since Abramovich’s arrival in 2003, the figure averages out at 20.9, marking out this season’s squad as a significant anomaly. There is, of course, nothing decisive about it — Chelsea began the 2015-16 campaign with a group featuring 23 Premier League starters and finished in 10th place before romping to the title with the same number a year later — but it does help to underline what is concerning Conte.

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The most reliable predictor of future Premier League performance is past Premier League performance. A significant proportion of overseas signings fail, and many of those who succeed still require a period of adjustment to a competition that poses unique physical and cultural challenges.

Conte knows this, which is why he has not immediately installed Morata as the focal point of his attack, and why he admitted this week that the “great loss” of Matic to Manchester United will change things for Bakayoko.

“My idea was to give Bakayoko the right time to adapt in this league behind Matic,” he told the Evening Standard. “But now after the sale of Matic, we need to try to accelerate this process for Bakayoko after his injury.”

It is also likely a reason why several of the names Chelsea are now being linked with in the final weeks of the transfer window — most notably Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Danny Drinkwater, Ross Barkley and Virgil van Dijk — are known Premier League quantities.

Three weeks remain in the transfer window, leaving Chelsea plenty of time to secure the extra bodies they need before any lack of depth starts to bite. But the stakes are high; looking at the squad as it stands, Conte has every reason to be anxious.

 

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