The 5 big questions that will define Chelsea's 2016/17

Garry Hayes discusses the Blues' formation, which players will make the difference, likely line-up and more...

1. What's the formation?

The four goals scored against Werder Bremen suggest that, in an attacking sense, the switch was a success; the two conceded indicate there's work to be done defensively, however

Antonio Conte continues to keep Chelsea fans guessing about how the side will line-up this season. The new boss started pre-season with a 4-2-4 against Rapid Vienna, with the Blues reverting back to out-and-out wingers for the first time since the days of Arjen Robben and Damien Duff.

Chelsea looked more dynamic in attack than they did at any point last season, but more recently Conte's moved towards a 4-1-4-1, with Diego Costa employed as a lone striker once more. The four goals scored against Werder Bremen suggest that, in an attacking sense, the switch was a success; the two conceded indicate there's work to be done defensively, however.

If Conte's men are as open against West Ham United on Monday, they'll be punished: Werder created plenty and would have scored four or five with more clinical frontmen. With just days to go until the big kick-off, Conte still doesn't seem to know his favoured system.

Antonio Conte

Conte still seems unsure about his preferred formation for the season

2. Can John Terry last an entire season?

He's still essential to this Chelsea team even if his influence is on the wane, with Chelsea's failure to recruit a new centre-half so far this summer making him even more important than Conte might have intended

Terry will be 36 in December and yet he still dominates conversation at Stamford Bridge. He remains essential to this Chelsea team even if his influence is on the wane, with the club's failure to recruit a new centre-half so far this summer making him even more important than Conte might have intended.

The former Juventus boss has just four recognised first-team defenders at his disposal for the clash with West Ham. Kurt Zouma's injured, Papy Djilibodji's joined Sunderland, Baba Rahman's moved to Schalke on loan and Ola Aina, Michael Hector and Matt Miazga are vastly inexperienced at this level; that leaves Conte with just Terry, Gary Cahill, Branislav Ivanovic and Cesar Azpilicueta to call upon, with each member of the quartet below par last year.

Chelsea will again be relying on Terry's experience and knowhow in the heart of the backline. Can the former England captain's ageing legs go the distance? They'll have to if Chelsea are to avoid another disappointing campaign.

John Terry

Terry's leadership and experience will be essential... again

3. Is N’Golo Kante the answer to Chelsea’s midfield problems?

So much is riding on N’Golo Kante repeating his Leicester City form for Chelsea this season: it was the Blues' struggles in the middle of the park that saw them collapse so spectacularly last term, with Nemanja Matic’s partnership with Cesc Fabregas found out by opponents.

Conte's selections in pre-season show he's trying to keep that duo as far away from each other as possible. Kante's signing has allowed him to do that, with the France international certain to start in the engine room. 

Having being hailed as the second coming of Claude Makelele, Kante has some big shoes to fill. The 25-year-old will have to show he's more than a one-season wonder, and Chelsea will need him to stop them being bulled in central areas. He could be the west Londoners' most important player in 2016/17.

4. Is Eden Hazard back to his best?

They'll need to be more creative and clinical this year, and the Belgian simply has to improve after an extremely disappointing 12 months

It wasn’t just Chelsea’s failings in midfield and defence that saw them implode in 2015/16: Hazard's failure to get anywhere close to his brilliant form a year earlier robbed them of their key man in the final third. 

Without Hazard causing havoc on the left, Chelsea were limp and easy to contain, and opponents relished playing against them. They'll need to be more creative and clinical this year, and the Belgian simply has to improve after an extremely disappointing 12 months. 

A hip problem dogged Hazard for much of last season, but he now seems to be over that problem and is as close to 100 per cent fitness as possible. If he can get back to his best in the coming weeks and months, Chelsea will be a much more dangerous proposition.

Eden Hazard Goal   Chelsea vs Tottenham 2-2

Hazard scores against Tottenham

5. Will Conte still be Chelsea manager by the end of the season?

Most clubs who have suffered the turmoil and turbulence Chelsea have in recent times would be expecting a period of calm right now, but this is Chelsea and Chelsea aren't most clubs. Since 2003, Roman Abramovich has sacked or replaced 10 managers - including Jose Mourinho and Guus Hiddink twice - so it's not inconceivable that Conte's head could be placed on the chopping block if things go badly.

It probably won't come to that: Conte's pre-season has been impressive, he possesses an excellent track record and has already endeared himself to supporters in a short space of time. The players seem to enjoy his way of working, too, which could go a long way towards protecting him from the whim of the owner.

But a few bad results and the risk of no Champions League football for a second successive season could spark Abramovich into action. Even Mourinho couldn't weather last season's storm at Chelsea, and Conte probably wouldn't last much longer if his side start anywhere near as badly.

Predicted starting XI (vs West Ham)

Courtois; Ivanovic, Cahill, Terry, Azpilicueta; Kante; Willian, Fabregas, Oscar, Hazard; Costa

Oscar’s future has been a topic of conversation this summer, but he’s scored three in his last two games and reasserted his value to the team. Fabregas is a must from a creative perspective and Kante will start as the ball-winner, instantly providing Chelsea with more balance in midfield. The rest of the team picks itself.

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