Antonio Conte's 5-point plan to get Chelsea on track in the Premier League
Antonio Conte has no time to waste if he hopes to ensure Chelsea are fully prepared to rebound from the worst season of the Roman Abramovich era. The Italian manager has just five more friendlies in three weeks' time to fine-tune his tactical and physical preparation and acquire his top transfer targets. The new Premier League campaign begins at home against West Ham on Aug. 15.
Here are five key points for Conte to prioritise between now and then.
1. Sign a top centre-back
Conte refused to name specific players on his transfer wishlist after Saturday's 2-0 loss to Rapid Vienna, but he did underline the urgency and importance of Chelsea's recruitment approach in the coming weeks.
"We talk every day with the club," he said when asked about the Blues' transfer strategy. "It's very important because we know what this team needs. The club and I are on the same [page] and we know to do what to do to improve this club, this team."
Conte knew prior to defeat at Allianz Stadion that Chelsea desperately require reinforcement in central defence.
John Terry, 35, may turn 36 by the time Kurt Zouma is ready to make his first-team return after undergoing knee surgery earlier this year, and Gary Cahill continues to battle to emerge from a prolonged slump in form for club and country. Branislav Ivanovic could still be needed at right-back, and Papy Djilobodji is simply not at the level required of him.
Yet there are no easy solutions. The top transfer targets -- Leonardo Bonucci, John Stones and Kalidou Koulibaly -- are all proving highly difficult and very expensive to extricate from their current clubs.
"We prefer to wait and to take the right player rather than to take a player only for emotion," Conte insisted on Saturday. As the transfer window ticks down, however, Chelsea's hand could be forced.
2. Get the squad to peak fitness
Poor physical conditioning was an underrated factor in Chelsea's spectacular collapse under Jose Mourinho last season. Just 17 days separated the Blues' first pre-season match against New York Red Bulls and their Premier League opener against Swansea City, where they were lucky to escape with a 2-2 draw.
A severely undercooked Chelsea squad went on to claim just four points from their first five matches. Physical deficiencies became confidence issues and the seeds of the crisis to come were sown.
Through his words and actions, Conte has already indicated his determination not to make the same mistakes. Chelsea's preseason began at the club's training base at Cobham last Wednesday, more than five weeks ahead of the new season, and has consisted of two intensive training sessions per day.
By the time Chelsea fly to the United States to participate in the International Champions Cup at the end of the month, Conte should have a full complement of senior players to drill -- including summer signing N'Golo Kante.
The more fit the team are, the more likely they are to hit the ground running in a Premier League that promises to be more brutally competitive than ever before.
3. Find a strike partner for Costa
Conte's tactical approach to Saturday's friendly loss to Rapid Vienna made clear why Chelsea are still pursuing another striker this summer.
At times, the Blues lined up in a 4-2-4 formation at the Allianz Stadion, with Victor Moses and Willian pushing high up on the wings and Ruben Loftus-Cheek operating more often as a second striker than a No. 10. It was an awkward fit for the personnel available to Conte and this, coupled with Chelsea's lack of sharpness in the early days of their preseason, led to a limp defeat.
Conte can call upon Michy Batshuayi, Loic Remy and Bertrand Traore for Wednesday's match against WAC RZ Pellets, but none are regarded as the ideal choices to partner Diego Costa -- who will not be leaving Chelsea this summer despite Atletico Madrid's interest -- once the season begins.
That man, reportedly, is Real Madrid striker Alvaro Morata, whose future at the Santiago Bernabeu remains far from clear. If Chelsea can't get that deal done, another alternative could be pairing Costa with Eden Hazard, thereby easing the defensive responsibilities placed on the most talented player at the club.
Conte will have to find a convincing foil for Costa in the coming weeks if his 4-4-2/4-2-4 vision is to work in the Premier League.
4. Unlock Hazard's potential
In recent months, rare displays of Hazard's dominating brilliance have evoked more frustration than joy in Chelsea supporters.
The Belgian cannot afford another season of fluctuating form and fitness if he is to be taken seriously as a talent capable of one day winning the Ballon d'Or, and Conte must connect with Chelsea's brightest talent if he wants to bring major trophies to Stamford Bridge.
Perhaps the new head coach could do worse than consult Guus Hiddink. The Dutchman remains in the background at Chelsea, a long-time friend and advisor of Abramovich, and indicated last season that he would be willing to talk to Conte should his knowledge be required.
In an otherwise underwhelming interim spell, Hiddink's biggest achievements were getting Costa to focus mentally and returning Hazard to his prime physical and mental state -- just in time to destroy Tottenham Hotspur's stuttering Premier League title challenge with one of the goals of the season.
Hiddink allowed Hazard time to recover from his lingering injury problems and freedom to express himself on the pitch. If Conte can find a way to incorporate the Belgian's more flamboyant talents into his team of relentless worker bees, Chelsea could return to title contention very quickly.
5. Give youth a chance
The makeshift squad that Conte took to Austria carried a youthful look in the absence of the players who participated in the knockout stages of Euro 2016 and the Copa America Centenario.
Loftus-Cheek's presence in the starting XI against Rapid underlined the high regard in which his talent is held by the Chelsea hierarchy, though he failed to make an impact in an unfamiliar attacking position.
After a lethargic 45 minutes, the introductions of academy youngsters Nathaniel Chalobah and Ola Aina injected some much-needed energy and urgency into Chelsea's play, and both were responsible for the Blues' closest attempts to an equaliser after the break.
The intensity that Conte demands from his teams on and off the ball makes more sense with younger legs, and there are plenty beyond Chalobah and Aina on the fringes of the Chelsea first team.
If the transfer market doesn't address every key need in the next few weeks, the most dominant academy in England might not be the worst alternative. In any case, preseason is the perfect opportunity to find out.
Liam is ESPN FC's Chelsea correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Liam_Twomey.