Transfers, injuries and suspensions leave Chelsea far short of what is required
As soon as the Chelsea team sheet was announced prior to the opening day fixture with Burnley, there were mutterings all around the media about a message being sent by the manager to the boardroom. With the substitutes' bench filled with names unfamiliar to those outside of the Chelsea fold and Jeremie Boga being given his Premier League debut, it was seen as a conspicuous ploy by Antonio Conte to shame his bosses into delving further into the transfer market.
The truth is, due to the sparse resources at Conte's disposal, he had little choice in the matter other than to begin the game with less than the permitted seven substitutes. Now that really would have been a message. Whatever the motives, the situation is a clear consequence of the club selling players before securing replacements. Whether this was a deliberate tactic by the board or an unforeseen circumstance is unknown, but either way, it has left a title-winning team stripped to the bare bones at the start of the campaign. It is little other than a dereliction of duty.
The most affected area is clearly central midfield, where Chelsea currently have just three players in the squad who specialise in the position -- N'Golo Kante, Cesc Fabregas and Tiemoue Bakayoko. Nemanja Matic and Nathaniel Chalobah have both moved on this summer and others capable of playing there -- such as Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Mario Pasalic, Marco van Ginkel and Lewis Baker -- have all been sent out on loan. While Chelsea were honourable in sanctioning Matic's and Chalobah's requests to leave, the sensible thing would have been to make their moves contingent on ample reinforcements being brought in first.
With Fabregas now serving a one-match suspension after his dismissal in the 3-2 defeat to Burnley and Bakayoko just having returned to training following knee surgery, only one recognised midfielder is available for the now daunting trip to Wembley to play Tottenham. Given how dominant Spurs were in that part of the field against a first-choice Chelsea side both in their 2-0 win at White Hart Lane last season and for much of the FA Cup semifinal, Conte's mood must be darkening by the second.
The question the manager must answer is how to set his team up at Wembley this weekend. Unless there is a major signing about to be unveiled, it seems he will have no option but to push David Luiz into midfield, where he has played reasonably well enough before without ever making the position his own. With Gary Cahill also suspended, however, that would mean that Chelsea would be relying on an untested defensive trio of Cesar Azpilicueta, Antonio Rudiger and Andreas Christensen to keep out Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen. It barely needs mentioning that facing the most potent strike force of last season with a defence that has barely played together is far from ideal.
Given how the midfield battle dominated these fixtures last season, it might be that Conte changes to a defensive-minded 4-2-3-1 formation. At the back, Rudiger and Christensen could be flanked by Azpilicueta and Marcos Alonso with Luiz and Kante, sitting just in front. Willian, Pedro (if fit) and Boga could form the trio of creators feeding Alvaro Morata up front. It would be a major shift in system but one that would fill the central areas with ballast while allowing room on the wings, an area that Tottenham do not exploit as well as some other teams, especially with Kyle Walker departed and Danny Rose and Kieran Trippier both injured.
But whatever happens in this fixture and irrespective of whether Chelsea have all their players available for the following one, the midfield will still be in dire need of strengthening. The links with Leicester's Danny Drinkwater are welcome, but they must lead to a deal. If negotiations drag on then the club must switch their sights to another target to avoid being left in the cold when the transfer window shuts.
If Chelsea do get desperate there is another notable England international who is available to transfer, even if completing the deal might prove problematic. Jack Wilshere has had a fallow couple of seasons, having been blighted by injury, and has been put up for sale by Arsenal. His preference is reportedly to remain in London, so with Chelsea being reigning champions and playing in Europe it should be relatively easy to convince him to move across town despite his boyhood allegiance to Arsenal. Whether Arsene Wenger could abide seeing a homegrown talent join the Blues and potentially thrive at Stamford Bridge is another matter entirely.
Given his fragile ankles and his loss of form, recruiting Wilshere would certainly be a risk, albeit a small one. The transfer fee would be relatively modest and if Chelsea could get the 25-year-old back to anywhere near where he was three or four years ago, then they would have secured themselves an absolute bargain. In any case, given the predicament that the squad is currently in, Chelsea can't be too picky.
Phil is one of ESPN's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @PhilLythell.