When the season began last August, all the fanfare hype and speculation was in Manchester. Mourinho vs. Guardiola. The two cash-rich Northern clubs were expected to tussle for the title as Messrs Pogba, Zlatan, Aguero and De Bruyne vied for the accolade of top scorer and best player. And of course, you couldn’t count out Liverpool under the charismatic Klopp, the rapidly improving young Tottenham side led by Pochettino and Arsenal (that might be going a bit too far).
Yet, at the time of writing, there is a different name at the top, ten points clear of nearest title challengers Spurs. A blend of swashbuckling attack style, defensive solidity and midfield engine and graft. This is the quiet revolution being led in West London. And the man at the top? The Don – Antonio Conte. The madman, utterly the gentleman in interviews and press conferences, a lunatic in the sidelines, fighting every battle himself, heading every ball, scoring every goal.
No one would have predicted this, especially in September when the Blues languished in eighth place, having been beaten in consecutive weeks by Liverpool and Arsenal, as well as a disappointing away draw at Swansea; all three performances had been punctuated by defensive mistakes and poor positioning.
But Antonio Conte was not deterred and rather than adapt to the Premier League, he made the League adapt to him. No Chelsea fan last summer would have predicted the change would be quite so dramatic and quite so quick. The 3-4-3 system which had garnered him such acclaim in Italy with Juventus was implemented, with the midfield axle of N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic dominating the midfield. In games when they require more creativity, they can call on the magic man, Cesc Fabregas. Not a bad substitute. The front three of Diego Costa, Eden Hazard and Pedro who had been so ineffective in the fateful 2015-16 season were given license to roam, free of defensive duty and focused towards getting goals and assists instead.
The stagnated 4-2-3-1 has been displaced by the fluid 3-4-3/5-3-2. Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso, the journeyman winger and Sunderland loanee have become dynamic wingbacks, flying down the wing and tracking back to intercept. The one-time butt of so many defensive jokes, David Luiz has marshalled a defence superbly alongside Gary Cahill, who finally appears to be stepping up out of John Terry’s shadow, and of course Cesar Azpilicueta has remained the usual reliable defensive self that he has provided since 2013. Thibaut Courtois finally looks to have regained the confidence which he had at Atletico Madrid.
The results were instant. 3-0 against Hull and Champions Leicester. A stunning 5-0 victory against Everton, which pundits hailed as potentially being one of the best-ever Premier League performances (in my view, the best I have ever seen Chelsea play) and the crowning glory; a 4-0 drubbing of Mourinho’s Manchester United. Heck, even Kante scored that day!
Not every Chelsea match this season has been superb attacking play. Conte has brought out the grindstone and is making sure players work damn hard to keep their spot. There have been counter-attacking masterclasses like 2-1 against Spurs at home and 3-1 at Manchester City away. But it’s important not to forget the grinding 1-0 victories against Sunderland, Crystal Palace, West Bromwich Albion. It’s results like that which win titles.
This season, Chelsea equalled the all-time consecutive Premier League wins record, which they share with Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’. Since losing in September, Chelsea have only lost once since, at White Hart Lane in January. Stamford Bridge is once more a fortress, with the Blues on a ten-game win streak at home in the League at time of writing. Beat Manchester United in the FA Cup Quarter Final, and Conte will be well on the way to Wembley.
Most importantly, Conte is finally looking towards the youth. The old guard of Terry, Lampard, Ivanovic, Cech and Drogba are almost all finally out, replaced by Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Nat Chalobah, Ola Aina. Both Kenedy and Charly Musonda have returned from loans and could possibly still play a part during the tense run-in this season. Conte rewarded the excellent loan spell of Nathan Ake by recalling him to the Blues in January, where he looks set to become a very useful squad player in the title run-in.
Not everything has worked for Conte, however. Michy Batshuayi has disappointed, struggling to adapt following his move from Marseille, which had carried echoes of Didier Drogba some years prior. The loss to West Ham United in the Capital One Cup was disappointing, and probably sounded the death knell for Oscar, Ivanovic and Mikel’s Chelsea careers. There has been a perceived aerial weakness, which has been punished by the likes of Peter Crouch, Dele Alli, Fernando Llorente since Christmas. Overall, the clean sheets aren’t as freely coming, as the sensational period between October and November when Chelsea went six hundred minutes plus without conceding in all competitions.
But the successes far outweigh the failures thus far. If Chelsea beat West Ham, they’ll remain ten points clear at the top, with only thirty-three points up for grabs, and no away games against the rest of the top four. £30m for N’Golo Kante looks like steal of the century, and it is possible that they may also have the PFA Player of the Year (Eden Hazard) and Premier League top-scorer (Diego Costa) in their ranks.
In general, everything seems rosy right now for the charismatic Italian. With just over ten games left to go, it seems like the title will be bound for SW6, and Roman Abramovich’s latest managerial decision has once more been vilified. N’Golo Kante, Eden Hazard, Diego Costa, Thibaut Courtois, Cesar Azpilicueta are all performing to a world class level. The managerial reign of Antonio Conte has started like a house on fire, and this dynasty looks to be one that could be both long-lasting and successful in equal measure.