Chelsea face big decisions as planning starts for 2016-17
Following the 2-0 FA Cup exit to Everton on Saturday evening, Chelsea's season is all but done. Theoretically, there are European places to chase, but with a Champions League spot virtually impossible and nobody particularly fussed about the Europa League, there is nothing tangible to target and little motivation for the players.
The focus must now be switched to next season and righting the wrongs that have plagued this erratic campaign. With the majority of the squad that won the Premier League in 2014-15 still present, the talent is there to be coaxed out of the players and wholesale change is not necessary. That said, there are plenty of areas that need to be looked at and issues to be addressed, starting with the manager.
Antonio Conte now looks almost certain to be the next man through the revolving door at Stamford Bridge with some betting firms now as short as 1-14 on him succeeding Guus Hiddink. A highly decorated player where he was a central figure in the great Juventus team of the mid-1990's, the Italian has replicated much of that success in the dugout.
His resurrection of Juventus following the calciopoli scandal and three consecutive Serie A titles illustrate that he is a man capable of reinstilling belief in his players and raising their standards to the highest level. His modest success at Bari and Siena, as well his unbeaten competitive record during his time as Italy manager, also indicate that his ability to succeed is not simply governed by familiar environments.
Known as a hard taskmaster who will not accept poor attitudes or mediocrity, Conte fits the bill as the type of manager that can create a genuine identity within a squad and not just acquiesce to each individual player's whims. Although Conte might be demanding, he is also reported to be a good person to work for with Italy's World Cup-winning maestro Andrea Pirlo going as far to say "I love that man, I have nothing but respect and admiration for him".
The marks against Conte are few but significant. His command of the English language is open for debate, although he has reportedly been taking lessons in recent months after having one eye on a job in the Premier League. Having never previously worked in the country, his knowledge of the English game and the suitability of his preferred transfer targets must also be questioned. On the flipside, Mauricio Pochettino had all the same doubts cast upon him when he was appointed Southampton manager in 2013 and he answered all of them and now has his current team, Tottenham, fighting for the title.
If, as is expected, Conte is close to agreeing terms, it will hugely benefit the club to have a new man in place as soon as possible. It will allow the manager to identify his desired new recruits early and allow the negotiators in the Chelsea hierarchy to get to work and hopefully capture the main targets before the squad returns for preseason. The lessons of last summer -- where the club failed to acquire any of the names on Jose Mourinho's wanted list -- must be learned and they would do well to remember how contrastingly efficient they were 12 months prior when Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas were both signed with the minimum of fuss. An early appointment would also mean that the John Terry contract saga can be resolved with Conte either wanting to keep hold of the club's most successful ever captain or opting to create a new identity without him.
Despite the huge windfall that will be enjoyed by Premier League clubs from next season due to the billions raised from the sale of television rights, there will still be a need to offload players, if only to make room for those coming in. The disappointing campaigns from almost everybody in the squad with the exception of Willian, Kurt Zouma, Kenedy and Bertrand Traore means that nobody will be deemed unsellable, though some will be more concerned than others.
Nemanja Matic has seen his form plummet since being such a dominant midfield presence in the first 18 months after he re-joined the club and, at 27, he will still retain a decent resale value. Oscar's inability to string a series of decent displays together despite his undoubted talent puts him in a precarious position, especially if rumours linking Chelsea with AS Roma's playmaker Miralem Pjanic are to be believed.
Loic Remy has slipped down the pecking order and has never really made a case to be involved more often, so it appears he is destined be playing elsewhere next season. It would also be no surprise if Chelsea move on Baba Rahman after only one year; Rahman has looked out of his depth since his £17 million move from Augsburg.
There are several other candidates for departure, but Eden Hazard is one player that neither Chelsea nor Conte will want to lose even in light of his disastrous season. From a financial perspective, Chelsea are unlikely to receive the type of transfer fee that they would deem acceptable for a player who only last year was widely believed to be the best in the Premier League and who has a £200,000-a-week deal set to run until the summer of 2020.
As such, the Blues will want an astronomical figure that his recent performances simply do not warrant. For Conte, or whoever the new manager might be, Hazard represents a genius of a player that just needs to regain his self-belief to once again become a scourge of defences both in England and Europe. At 25, Hazard has time on his side to still be a central figure at Chelsea and it would be entirely understandable if the incoming manager chose to build his team around him.
As for the potential new arrivals, the aforementioned Pjanic has been mooted, though in truth there are more pressing areas of concern than creativity. Another central midfielder is essential and it would be nice to see eyes trained on Leicester's N'Golo Kante, the all action box-to-box midfielder that resembles the departed Ramires, only more technically capable. Arturo Vidal's move to Bayern Munich has not been as productive as initially hoped and with Pep Guardiola, the man who brought him to the Bundesliga, leaving the Allianz Arena, there might be an opportunity to bring the Chile international to London.
More conservatively, Chelsea might choose to go after Adrien Rabiot, the shaggy-haired PSG youngster that scored the opening goal in their recent 2-1 win at Stamford Bridge. The Frenchman is a promising talent but has struggled to dislodge Marco Verratti, Thiago Motta or Blaise Matuidi from Laurent Blanc's midfield. A cheeky bid for a player known to be disappointed for his lack of action might just bear fruit.
That said, the full-back positions, central defence and the striking department will also all need looking at after this most humbling of seasons for Chelsea. A return to the sharp end of the Premier League table next season is certainly possible, though there is work to do before they can be a genuine contender once again.
Phil is one of ESPN's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @PhilLythell.