Chelsea's fixture congestion will test squad depth: Time for Giroud, Loftus-Cheek, Cahill, Ampadu to step up
Chelsea's return of four wins from their opening four games certainly gives cause for optimism, but there is no escaping the fact that the team is still very much a work in progress.
For starters, manager Maurizio Sarri is still working out his strongest team, as illustrated by the three different starting XIs that he has selected so far.
Between now and the next international break in October, Chelsea will play seven games in 23 days due to their involvement in the Capital One Cup and the Europa League. While it might restrict the amount of time that Sarri can spend drilling his players on the training ground, it will allow him to see some of those who have been on the fringes display their worth in competitive scenarios.
The likes of Emerson Palmieri, Davide Zappacosta and Danny Drinkwater will all hope to be given minutes to impress -- though, however well they play, their route to regular first-team football is blocked by the quality of those ahead of them.
But there are others that could force their way into the manager's thinking.
Top of that list will be Olivier Giroud. The Frenchman has become something of a cult hero since his switch from Arsenal in January, yet has failed to start a single game since the change in manager.
In theory, Alvaro Morata is more suited the Sarri brand of football that prefers the ball to be played to feet rather than in the air, though the striker's dearth of confidence and his constant state of frustration means that the centre forward position is still up for grabs. By contrast, Giroud's self-belief will be soaring after being a fixture in France's World Cup winning team and it will only have risen further after ending his goal drought with a sumptuous winner in the 2-1 win over Netherlands in the Nations League. The 31-year old will surely get a start for his club over the coming weeks and he has a golden chance to cement his spot.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek is another that is yet to be named in a starting XI but one that could force his way into the manager's thinking with an eye-catching performance or two. He has made two substitute appearances this season, impressing in the 2-0 win over Bournemouth, and a repeat over a full 90 minutes would do his prospects no harm.
Technically proficient, physically imposing and with balletic poise on the ball, he fits the mould of a Sarri midfielder and it is easy to see why the manager is keen to keep him in his ranks. The midfield is suddenly the toughest area of the Chelsea team to break into, but if Loftus-Cheek demonstrates that he understands his manager's demands it is not beyond his reach.
The coming fixtures will also be informative about Gary Cahill's future at the club. An honest, dogged, pure defender that has won every trophy available since joining the club in 2012, remarkably he has his fair share of detractors among the club's supporters. This season, however, might just be a bridge too far with Sarri's new system demanding that that the defence play a high line and that distribution is as important as positioning or anticipation.
With Cahill's pace dwindling and his passing adequate but nothing special, his days as a first-team regular might well have come to an end. The 32-year-old hasn't featured in this campaign as yet due to his participation at the World Cup and as a result he has relinquished his spot, possibly for good. However, he can take heart that his age will not count against him after seeing 31-year-old David Luiz enjoy a return to the limelight under the new management.
Ethan Ampadu poses perhaps the most intriguing question of all of them. the 17-year-old has yet to play a single minute for his club this season, though was named man of the match in Wales' thumping 4-1 win over Republic of Ireland. His display of high composure at the base of midfield, which saw him showcase his exceptional positional awareness and his bewildering passing range, was a sharp reminder of his talents. Still young, he continues to look unfazed by whatever is thrown at him and it was telling that he was included in Chelsea's Europa League squad while the £35 million Drinkwater was omitted.
Earmarked previously by Chelsea as a centre-back, it is entirely conceivable that Sarri actually sees Ampadu as a natural alternative to Jorginho, pulling the strings while stationed in front of the defence. With luck he will get his chance to show what he can do and it would be no surprise if he made the most of his opportunity.
If all goes to plan over the next month, Sarri might just realise that he has many more options among his playing staff than he previously thought.