Llorente, Sanchez and Alonso backup needed to boost Conte's Chelsea
In 1981, Aston Villa made history. They won the title using just 14 players. In a few weeks, Chelsea could top that. They could become champions courtesy of just 13 men.
Not literally. When Asmir Begovic stepped in for the injured Thibaut Courtois at Old Trafford, the goalkeeper became the 22nd player to take the field for Antonio Conte in the Premier League this season. But Chelsea's surge, in a run of 21 wins in 25 games before the 2-0 defeat to Manchester United, was attributable to a core 13: the regular starting XI plus Cesc Fabregas and Willian.
Sunday's setback exposed faultlines in the squad. Marcos Alonso's late withdrawal meant Chelsea started without the wing-back for the first time since September. They struggled to replace the Spaniard. It was a way of illustrating the size of the spending spree Conte will require in the summer.
Chelsea will have the greater workload European football entails. They cannot expect to go virtually injury free for a second season. Their squad has become slimmer this term with the winter departures of Branislav Ivanovic, John Obi Mikel and Oscar. Thirteen men have camouflaged the lack of cover. Even if Courtois and Eden Hazard are not lured to Real Madrid, Conte may require reinforcements in six departments while Oscar's sale, in particular, should give him a huge budget.
Here's a look at who could strengthen Chelsea next season.
Possible targets: Fernando Llorente, Alvaro Morata, Romelu Lukaku, Andrea Belotti.
Conte's initial plan this season was to play 4-2-4. But a lack of faith in Michy Batshuayi, one of only two senior strikers, forced a rethink. Perhaps he will revisit his original intentions. Even if he doesn't, the suggestions Diego Costa will leave and the probability Batshuayi, who has begun all 32 league games on the bench, will seek first-team football, means at least one centre-forward, and quite probably two, will be required.
The squad could be padded out by bringing back Loic Remy or Tammy Abraham after loan spells but Llorente, a former Juventus charge of Conte's, has more immediate potential to prove a prolific back-up and should be available if Swansea are relegated. Other potential targets are costlier, would expect to start more often and would be equipped to slot in for Costa if he is sold.
Possible targets: Alexis Sanchez, Federico Bernardeschi, Bernardo Silva.
In Hazard, Pedro and Willian, Conte has had three players competing for two positions as inside-forwards now. Revert to 4-2-4, where out-and-out wingers are essential, and there is no way Ruben Loftus-Cheek could be the fourth. Even if not, the Italian may look to find Oscar's successor. Sanchez, who could double up as a striking option, may have especial appeal because of his blend of versatility, potency and quality.
Possible targets: Radja Nainggolan, Youri Tielemans, Tiemoue Bakayoko, Lucas Biglia, Franck Kessie.
Another position where Conte has three players contesting two spots now and where he surely wants a fourth. Yet the odd job share between Fabregas and Nemanja Matic, opposites in many respects, may highlight the need for all-rounders, box-to-box players who can both defend and attack (again, 4-2-4 would make that still more important). Nainggolan was a target last summer. Tielemans offers more goalscoring potential but some mooted targets seem more defensive.
Possible targets: Ryan Sessegnon, Benjamin Mendy, Emerson Palmieri.
The reality that Alonso's absence meant Cesar Azpilicueta was switched from centre-back at Old Trafford. Nathan Ake and Pedro have played on the left in the FA Cup but each is better suited to other positions and neither is remotely close to being a like-for-like replacement. Nor is Kenedy, who lacks Alonso's defensive credentials. Unless Baba Rahman returns from his loan spell at Schalke, an alternative to Alonso must figure high on the list of priorities.
Possible targets: Cedric Soares, Jeremy Toljan, Djibril Sidibe, Joao Cancelo, Stephan Lichtsteiner.
A similar situation. When Victor Moses was missing against Crystal Palace and Manchester City, the very different duo of Pedro and Azpilicueta stood in, illustrating how Ivanovic has not been replaced. While the same may have been said of Moses last year, neither is a natural wing-back and, while Azpilicueta could operate as an orthodox right-back if Conte wants a four-man rearguard, another specialist seems essential if he is to continue with the current system.
Possible targets: Leonardo Bonucci, Kalidou Koulibaly, Antonio Rudiger, Michael Keane, Virgil van Dijk.
In one respect, Conte has cover. Kurt Zouma is fit again, Ake has been recalled from his loan spell at Bournemouth and the expectation is that Andreas Christiansen will come back after a two-year stint with Borussia Monchengladbach. Keep his current trio and that gives him six centre-backs, even with John Terry confirming his departure.
So the question instead is if Chelsea can secure an upgrade to the current first-choice trio, who have excelled this year but whose individual shortcomings have been masked by the system and the results. Koulibaly was wanted last summer while Bonucci, a stalwart of Conte's Juventus and Italy teams, has forged a reputation as the best centre-back in the world and would be the ideal acquisition. Manchester City may share that view.
Richard Jolly covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @RichJolly.