It has been suggested Chelsea’s squad is too small for them to compete on four fronts this season, but what does recent history suggest about the amount of players needed to maintain a Premier League title challenge while in Europe?
“I was looking at the programme here earlier and you look at the two squads… Chelsea are almost half of what the Arsenal squad is.”
Frank Lampard expressed his concern before the Community Shield about Chelsea’s lack of depth, and he was not the only Blue to raise an eyebrow after checking out the cast lists ahead of the season’s curtain raiser.
“I don’t know,” said Gary Cahill when asked whether he thought the Chelsea squad was too small. “The back of the programme was interesting today.”
Listed on the back of that programme were 41 names in the Arsenal squad, while Chelsea’s contained only 24. As Lampard and Cahill suggested, the obvious disparity hints at a major flaw in Chelsea’s plan to defend their Premier League title.
Or does it? A similar-sized squad last term did Chelsea no harm, while Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger have both spoken in the past of the difficulties of having too many frontline players in a squad.
Is there an ideal amount of core players to use within a season? We decided to investigate…
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The obvious place to start is with the Chelsea squad that won the Premier League title last season. And 24 is the exact number of players they used on their way to the second highest points total in the competition’s history.
Of those 24, one was Ola Aina, who played for a combined 23 minutes across three substitute appearances, while another was Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who made six substitute appearances but was still only on the pitch for half an hour in total.
Furthermore, of the 22 players that actually started games, Nathaniel Chalobah, Nathan Ake, Kenedy and Michy Batshuayi all only made one, in the penultimate game of the season after Chelsea had already secured the title.
18 – The amount of different players Chelsea had started going into the final two games of the 2016-17 season
Kurt Zouma (3 starts, 6 sub appearances), Oscar (5, 9), John Terry (6, 3) and Branislav Ivanovic (6, 7) were also peripheral figures, while back-up goalkeeper Asmir Begovic started only two games in the last month of the season.
In total, only 16 players made 10 or more Premier League appearances for the Blues. It puts a rather different slant on the idea that a first-team squad of 24 is not big enough to win the title.
However, Antonio Conte, who was rather less forthcoming than his skipper when concerns over his squad were put to him at Wembley, faces a far different challenge to the one he took on after accepting the Chelsea manager’s job last summer.
He arrived after a disastrous season in 2015-16 when the Blues finished in 10th place, meaning no European football. It meant they played just 47 matches in all competitions last season.
57 – The average amount of games played by a Premier League title-winning team involved in European competition over the last decade, 10 more than Chelsea played in 2016-17
It seems reasonable to assume, then, that Conte must plan for perhaps 10 extra games this season, with six Champions League group matches likely to be followed by at least one two-legged knockout-round match, unless it all goes horribly wrong in Europe between September and December.
Having fielded strong sides in both domestic cups last term, Conte must be more selective when identifying his priorities this time around.
However, even if he uses one or both of the domestic cups to rest his stars and give game-time to youngsters and fringe players, a frontline squad of 24 still appears to be slightly small compared to that of previous clubs to have won the Premier League while also competing in the Premier League.
27 – The average amount of players used by the last eight Premier League champions also involved in the Champions League
However, in all of those cases, just like with Chelsea last season, that figure of 27 is swelled by a group of reserve and young players used extremely sparingly.
Keeping a squad of 27 frontline players happy simply would not be possible, as Arsene Wenger explained last year.
“You need competition, and competition exists if the numbers are not too short or not too big,” he said. “When the number is too big, there is no competition anymore and it goes against the interests of the team.
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“If a player is No.26 in the squad, he needs three players to die before he has a real chance to play. That has an impact when he comes in every morning. He is down and he takes something away from the team.”
So while the last eight title winners involved in the Champions League have used an average of 27 players in total in their Premier League campaigns, that figure is reduced to 20 when looking only at players to have made 10 or more appearances.
Interestingly, Manchester United have provided the outliers at both ends of the scale, having used a high of 22 regulars on two occasions but getting by with only 18 in 2007-08.
Players to have made 10+ PL appearances for last eight title winners involved in CL
Chelsea 2014-15 – 19
Manchester City 2013-14 – 19
Manchester United 2012-13 – 22
Manchester City 2011-12 – 20
Manchester United 2010-11 – 22
Chelsea 2009-10 – 20
Manchester United 2008-09 – 19
Manchester United 2007-08 – 18
So what of Chelsea? While Conte might feel his first XI is starting the new season stronger than it finished the last, in terms of squad depth, the signings of Antonio Rudiger, Tiemoue Bakayoko and Alvaro Morata simply replace the departed John Terry and Nemanja Matic, and the soon-to-be-departed Diego Costa.
Chalobah, Ake and Zurt Zouma have all moved on too, with Conte naming four academy players – Charly Musonda, Andreas Christensen, Kyle Scott and Jeremie Boga – among his 24 for the Community Shield game.
Christensen in particular is tipped for big things, but that leaves a squad of 20 proven senior players for Conte to choose from, exactly the amount recent history suggests is required.
The Chelsea boss, however, like every other, will want to feel confident he has strong enough cover should an injury crisis ever occur.
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“In terms of quality we’ve certainly got that, and you just have to hope we don’t have too many injuries,” said Cahill, no doubt aware of how lucky the Blues were in that regard last season.
According to physioroom.com, Chelsea lost the fourth fewest number of days to injuries, while only West Brom had fewer injuries which kept a player out for more than a fortnight.
In contrast, Liverpool, who also had no distraction from their domestic commitments, suffered as a result of injuries. Only two clubs had more injuries over the course of the season, with their key players being affected at crucial times.
Despite all the work that goes into injury prevention, they will never be eradicated. Jurgen Klopp said “it is just unlucky”, and if Chelsea’s luck runs out, Conte could have major problems.
History suggests his squad may already be just about big enough, but don’t be surprised to see Chelsea increasing their numbers just in case.