With the Premier League season rapidly coming to its second week, it’s an exciting time for any football fan, but it feels particularly good to be a Chelsea fan. A new manager, with a new system and style of play, and two vital new signings; all this makes for a desperately needed breath of fresh air into a squad that was stunningly stale in the worst title defence in the Premier League era last season. And as shown on Monday night, things are seemingly coming into fruition, with all the aforementioned new things at the club slotting into place almost perfectly from the off.
Firstly, the new manager, upon whom all hopes and dreams for the future are rested. Antonio Conte is proven at the elite level of football: as a player he won everything in club football an Italian player can, in addition to being a member of Italy’s runner-up squads in the ’94 World Cup and Euro 2000, and as a manager he sparked the post-Calciopoli Juventus revival, turning them from an underperforming side finishing midtable to Scudetto winners three years on the bounce (with Max Allegri continuing this on in the two following years with a team still very much in Conte’s blueprint), as well as taking one of the worst Italian squads in memory into Euro 2016, through the ‘Group of Death’ as winners, and to a Quarter Final via defeating Euro-holders Spain and taking World Champions Germany to Penalties. This illustrious CV gives hope to Blues fans after the disappointment of last season, particularly his turnaround of Juventus in 2011/12, which suggests that a similar turnaround at Stamford Bridge isn’t completely out of the question. Indeed, his abilities on Monday reflected this potential for a glorious turnaround. Of course, there were the changes which were made at 1-1 which undoubtedly won the game, but I’ll go into more depth on that later. It’s the passionate figure, kicking and heading every ball, positioning his players like intricate chess pieces from the sidelines, and of course the celebration of the winner; all a big change from the sedentary figure of Guus Hiddink during the petering out of last season. Granted, a certain J. Mourinho was similarly passionate on the sideline, undeniably to his own downfall in the first game of last season and his run-in with Dr Carniero, but there’s more authenticity about it: with Mourinho came the impression that it was all an act, a mind game; not so with Conte.
With a new manager, comes a new system. Out goes the 4-2-3-1 which had become so broken and unbalanced last year, and in comes one of two options: the first being an attacking 4-4-2 that could be said to hark back to English Football’s yesteryear. The wingers, likely to Hazard on the left and one of Pedro, Willian or Cuadrado on the right, getting up to support the striking duo in possession, and track back to aid the full backs (and make up for the loss of a central midfielder, as most other sides have three in midfield) when possession is lost. The use of a 4-4-2, and particularly a strike duo, has proven lethal in recent years. One example of this is in 2013/14, where an average Liverpool side were almost fired to the title by a superb strike partnership of Suarez and Sturridge. The other, more obvious example of this is last season’s champions Leicester, whose partnership of Okazaki and Vardy were too hot to handle for most Premier League defences. This struggle against striking partners has been put down to their mainstream absence in the top level game for almost a decade; two up top was rarely seen in the Premier League since around 2007 and before last season unless going for a goal. This means there are a generation of defenders who have only ever learned and been coached to defend against a lone striker. This could be something that could benefit Conte in the long run, and certainly did after Batshuayi’s introduction late on during Monday’s game. However, Conte started the game playing a 4-3-3 akin to that played during Mourinho’s first spell at Chelsea: N’Golo Kanté in the Makelele role, Matic more forward playing in a similar role to how Michaels Ballack and Essien would, then Oscar playing like his predecessor in the number 8 shirt, Frank Lampard, starting his runs to the box deeper than he would from number 10, therefore arriving later like Lampard would. Both of these tactics, the 4-3-3 and the 4-4-2, look more encouraging than the 4-2-3-1 that had grown stale and predictable in recent years, and the switching between one and the other before games depending on opposition, and during them to gain or secure points, shows a great flexibility, adaptability, and most importantly pragmatism.
I’ve already mentioned them with regards to the West Ham game, but the two new men look to have made a big difference. N’Golo Kanté’s performances at both the Euros and last season at Leicester, as well as against West Ham, all suggest that £32million could soon prove to be a bargain for what he adds in midfield, and allows others in the team to be able to do going forward. At Leicester, it was his dynamism, which then-Assistant Manager Steve Walsh jokingly referred to as having two players in midfield, which enabled Leicester to be combative against teams with a midfield three when playing only two; his departure and replacement alongside Drinkwater by Andy King, who is a good player but doesn’t possess the same stamina and pace, has shown that perhaps Walsh wasn’t wrong. However, in the early stages of the Euros, he played in a deeper role in a midfield three, behind Pogba and Matuidi in similar roles to that which Oscar and Matic respectively played on Monday. Again, his dynamism when slotting into this role allowed France’s full backs and also his midfield partners to be more aggressive offensively. This again is similar to Monday’s game, where both Azpilicueta and Ivanovic got forward very often. In the latter stages of the Euros, Deschamps chose to go with a 4-2-3-1, with Pogba and Matuidi as the 2, to allow Griezmann to play in the 10. This meant Kanté was dropped for Newcastle’s Moussa Sissoko, and in my eyes France never looked as good an outfit again. Kanté has already vastly improved our midfield from what it was last season, and despite getting a harsh early booking, managed to see out the full 90 minutes putting in a superb performance, adding yet further hope for the near future.
The other addition has been Michy Batshuayi, a man who has been very impressive in the past few seasons at Olympique Marseille, as well as for Belgium. He had been linked with a host of other Premier League sides, including Monday’s opponents West Ham, but was snapped up instead by Chelsea. Despite comparisons with Didier Drogba due to both stature and the club he left to join Chelsea, he has claimed himself on Twitter to not be too good in the air, something which could never have been said about Drogba. However, his flick-on for Costa’s winner was a textbook assist from one striker to another, and even from his short debut off the bench, the suggestions of a blossoming partnership between Michy and Diego are strong.
In summary, Chelsea fans are right to be hopeful. We have a new, experienced and passionate manager who has already turned a big club who had been in a worse position than ours into champions within a year, and while that’s unlikely to happen this year, it’s still a big positive for the future. We have a team well-versed in two different tactics, which can be switched between, depending on what is needed. We have signed last season’s best Premier League central midfielder from the champions of the league, and also a well sought-after striker who was one of the best in his league too. And to top it all off, we’ve started the season with a win in a London derby, which is never easy, especially against what is a good West Ham side with a great manager in Slaven Bilic. All in all, especially considering the events of last season, things are looking up.