When Antonio Conte took over the reigns from Jose Mourinho after a torrid last season, Chelsea fans expected many things. Most people anticipated a rigid defence that would leak far fewer goals. Supporters were even hopeful of seeing the Blues back to where they belonged: fighting for the title. But the little hope they had must have evaporated away after successive losses to title-contenders Liverpool and Arsenal at the start of the season. What ensued till the Premier League season reached its halfway mark was something which even the most optimistic Chelsea fan would have failed to predict.
Chelsea have equalled the English top-flight record of winning 13 straight games. At this key juncture, it is important to understand the 3-4-3 formation employed by Conte. He deserves full credits for figuring out his winning formula in quick time even when faced with a myriad of issues. Here is the lineup:
The three-man backline of Cesar Azpilicueta, David Luiz and Gary Cahill, along with shot-stopper Thibaut Courtois have been very miserly when it comes to conceding goals. It comes as no surprise then, that Courtois leads the cleansheets chart with 11 to his name from 19 games. He has been excellent when called upon action.
Luiz was signed on the final day of the transfer season after Conte failed to procure the services of Juve man Leonardo Bonucci. Many feared that Luiz would be a total disaster, just like his first stint at the club. But right now his performances as the “sweeper” in defence has his critics eating their words. Azpilicueta has looked solid at right centre-back even though he lacks the physical presence. He has made up for that in terms of his quick reading of the game and a decent turn of pace. Cahill provides the aerial prowess and strength at the left side of defence. Even though he is not naturally left-footed, he has adapted well to his position and seems like a natural fit now.
The central midfield duo of N’golo Kanté and Nemanja Matić form the heart of the side. The energy they provide at both ends of the field has made up for the lack of a genuine playmaker in the starting eleven. Kanté was signed from defending champions Leicester City in the summer transfer window. His importance is underlined by the fact that Leicester are languishing in the bottom third of the table. Kanté’s knack for interceptions and ball recoveries has gone very well among the supporters. He has also added an attacking mindset to his tenacious side of play this season. Matić, on the other hand, provides the steel and grit in the middle.
The wingbacks have epitomised themselves as phoenixes. Marcos Alonso (signed from Fiorentina) never looked comfortable playing as a full-back in Serie A. But as a left wing-back he has license to bomb forward. At the same time he has become more aware of his positioning while tracking back. His parternership with Hazard on the left flank has been top notch so far. Victor Moses interestingly has taken a step in the opposite direction since he primarily played as a right winger or forward at Liverpool. His physicality and pace has meant that he has taken the wingback role like a duck to water.
Diego Costa and Eden Hazard have made most of the headlines this season (for the right reasons!) regarding Chelsea’s rise to the top. But both of them were shadows of themselves last season under Mourinho. How Conte has managed to turn the tide in such a short span is anyone’s guess.
Hazard has been Chelsea’s best player and every attacking move seems to go through him. Though he is nominated as the left forward in the formation, he pops up in pockets of spaces all across the final third of the pitch. His limited focus on the defensive side (thanks to Alonso and Cahill) has further enabled him to utilise all his energy to run at defenders throughout the 90 minutes. As a result, he has scored 9 goals already this season. Conte’s decision to use him as a false-nine when Costa was suspended speaks volumes of the faith he has in Hazard. Hazard has also successfully assumed the duty of being the number one penalty taker.
Costa too has found a spring in his step this season. He has hassled the defenders with his upper-body strength and aggressive mindset albeit within the laws of the game. He has managed to stay away from red cards, though he did serve a one-match suspension for accumulating five yellow cards. Whereas in the last campaign he appeared overweight, this year he has rounded his game to a new level, lethal with both his feet and in the air as well. He leads the league scoring charts with 14 goals to his name.
Finally we come to Pedro who has been an unsung member of the side. A world-beater at Barcelona, the Canary islander has impressed pundits with his nimble footwork, work rate and finishing. He has been very effective with his pace when Chelsea break away on the counter.
We see that every member of the side has had a great first half of the season. There have been no glaring faults in the system devised by Conte. Even the subs on the bench have contributed. Willian has been an able deputy to Pedro and Cesc Fabregas has appeared in games when Chelsea have found it tough to unlock stubborn defences. His range of passing provides a different dimension. Two other things have gone in favour of Chelsea. They, unlike their other title competitors, have no distraction of European football and can focus on the League alone. Plus, they have managed to stay free from injuries to a large extent.
The evidence at hand and history suggest that the title is now Chelsea’s to lose. The gap is already five points with a game in hand. A betting person would struggle to choose any side apart from the Blues. I’m sure Conte won’t be resting on his laurels just yet. We have seen stranger things happen in football, haven’t we?