We saw something new from Antonio Conte’s Chelsea in the Champions League: rotation. And he tells us we’ll be seeing more of it.
“If you think, like last season we play with only 13 players, you are crazy.”
That was Conte’s explanation for his policy of rotation on Tuesday night against Qarabag: though in truth, any changes were possibly less marked than many spectators expected. The team he picked was notable mainly for the introduction of Davide Zappacosta – scorer of a remarkable, if admittedly accidental debut goal.
With Michy Batshuayi deputising for Alvaro Morata, and the previously banned Gary Cahill back in the side, Chelsea had no problems worth noting. As one experienced hand pointed out to me on seeing the team: “Rotation means switching two or three players, not eleven: you still want to win the game.”
And this is Conte’s task this season.
Fighting on four fronts, for the first time in England, he will need that depth. That does not mean the luxury of two eye catching options in each slot. But it does mean having a tight squad, where options towards the top end are in many ways interchangeable.
It is difficult to say just how many players he will use: but in a squad of 24, it seems unlikely he will regularly rely on more than 16-18. This goes back to his methods which involve taking a relatively small group of players, and working on almost telepathic interplay to make the team purr like a finely tuned engine.
Too many spare parts, and both coach and players lose focus. Thus, complaints about the depth of the squad look misplaced.
With twice weekly football, that little added depth ensures both regular game time and opportunity for rest. There will be nothing as clunky as a midweek and weekend side: Conte is more astute than that. But he will clearly subtly shuffle his pack from time to time to make fixture congestion less of an issue.
And at the moment, that pack is growing in ability game by game.
Here we saw a debut goal from sub Tiemoue Bakayoko – who, still not fully fit, is gradually developing into the sort of player Chelsea had hoped to see. While at the weekend there was impressive work from Morata – still finding his feet in this league, but nonetheless reaching the scoresheet with regularity.
In coming weeks we will start to see input from the injured Danny Drinkwater, and possibly Charly Musonda.
But if there is one player who is struggling to find his form here, it is the captain. A rash and needless challenge, of the sort that you wouldn’t expect to see from a Premier League veteran against an Azeri club side, ensured Gary Cahill made his way into the book.
The word about his elevation to official captaincy has always been clear: as a club move it makes sense; but it says little about whether he will perform competitively enough to fit into the side. His place in the squad is not in question: he brings all sorts of qualities, recognised by a series of managers at Chelsea for some years.
But following that red card against Burnley, and this quite similar yellow one here, there are legitimate questions about where his sharpness has gone since the summer recess. Conte, of course, has the strength in depth: the whole point of that improvement of the squad’s middle ranks was to cover these sorts of fluctuations in form and fitness.
His biggest decision may now though involve choosing his first XI for an upcoming series of challenging Premier League fixtures.