Conte must alter tactics and recruit well to turn Chelsea into UCL hopefuls
Watching the Champions League final between Juventus and Real Madrid on Saturday, it was hard not to be impressed. Two teams studded with individual quality and built on a combination of organisation and flair -- with slightly different ratios for each side -- provided a riveting contest, at least for the first 65 minutes.
With Chelsea returning to the competition next season after a year's absence and now as champions of England, it was equally hard not to fantasise about the possibility of emulating those two European giants and making the final next year. The reality, however, is that they have a huge amount of work to do before such a dream can come materalise.
Since Roman Abramovich's arrival at Stamford Bridge in 2003, Chelsea have been no strangers to the closing stages of the Champions League. Two finals have been reached with one being victorious and a further four semifinals have been contested by the Blues. The club are accustomed to the rarefied atmosphere at Europe's top table.
But such acclimatisation can be lost in a short period of time. Another semifinal would represent a very good campaign especially as if they do make it, it will already be four years since their last appearance at the same stage when they were eliminated by Atletico Madrid in 2014.
Despite Chelsea sauntering to the Premier League title with a record number of wins, it was clear during the second half of the campaign that some teams were getting to grips with Antonio Conte's system. Having initially conquered all before them while barely conceding a goal after the initial switch to 3-4-3, it was notable how they struggled against tactically disciplined teams in the last few months.
Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester United all deservedly got the better of Conte's men. Although it is tempting to write off those performances as blips in an otherwise magnificent season, they point to potential weaknesses that need to be addressed before they are exploited further. If the better teams in the Premier League can expose deficiencies, the cream of Europe will have little trouble in doing the same.
The team will be bolstered by further additions in the coming weeks though the one area that still remains a headache, regardless of personnel, is central midfield. As good as N'Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic were last season, in each of those difficult matches it was their part of the field that was overrun. Tottenham dominated that area in their 2-1 win at White Hart Lane and for large parts of the FA Cup semifinal meeting. Arsenal's win in the final was founded on taking advantage of the space behind the midfield. Manchester United's man-marking midfielder Ander Herrera was named man of the match in Chelsea's 2-0 loss at Old Trafford, which tells its own story.
This is not to berate either Kante or Matic, even if the latter had a shocker in the final, but to highlight the lack of help they receive when the opposition is targeting them. Cannier players from the best teams in Europe will have noticed this and will be able to take advantage. It might necessitate another change in system with another body positioned in midfield to provide extra ballast. That might negate Chelsea's attacking thrust or their ability to counterattack quite so effectively, but needs must. Thankfully, in Antonio Conte, the Blues have a manager not averse to pragmatism when the situation demands it.
Recruitment is also vital. While some might argue the two Manchester clubs retain the best squads in the Premier League, there is no doubt that in the two-horse title race between Chelsea and Tottenham it was Chelsea's ability to bring on substitutes of the calibre of Willian, Cesc Fabregas and Michy Batshuayi that proved the difference. Such reserves of talent must not only be retained this summer but increased so the squad can fight on all fronts and have the requisite quality to be able to genuinely mix it with Europe's finest.
One thing that Chelsea have never lacked is ambition. While some clubs might be content merely by qualifying for the Champions League, Chelsea's target is always to lift the trophy. Those dreams might be lofty and some might even consider them laughable right now given Real Madrid and Barcelona's dominance of the competition and even Juventus' two final appearances in the last three seasons.
But if you don't try, you're guaranteed to fail. With players Eden Hazard, Thibaut Courtois, David Luiz and Kante to name just a few, the Blues have a core of enviable talent that can be mentioned in the same breath as the very best in their respective positions.
With even greater organisation, more malleable tactics and intelligent recruitment, Chelsea can start to close the gap on the continent's best and once again be England's standard bearers in the Champions League.
Phil is one of ESPN's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @PhilLythell.