It’s quickly becoming the most wonderful time of year, when with the nights starting earlier and earlier even the 3 o’clock kick offs turning into floodlit games, and balls that are neon yellow instead of the traditional white. It is also the time of year where the league tables begin to take shape, and this year it’s shaping up to be one of the tightest title races in Premier League history. The form side, without a doubt, are Chelsea. 7 league wins on the bounce, complete with 19 goals and 6 clean sheets in a row before last weekend, and that’s without going into the glorious detail of explaining the manner of those wins and the way in which we played. All this after a switch of formation from 4-3-3 to 3-4-3 by Antonio Conte, and one that has seemed to have taken the league by storm, and become the new formation in vogue.
It must be said, however, the catalyst for this were two poor results and awful performances in two big games against Liverpool and Arsenal. Yet it is the mark of a good manager that they can recognise the problems and be pragmatic enough to change and turn it around; this was something both Mourinho and Hiddink didn’t do last season, and something that Conte has done this, and with superb effect. In both of those games, we didn’t have enough going forward, and were too easy to carve through defensively. Costa was dangerous but isolated, we couldn’t get the ball up to him, especially with Hazard and Willian having to track back to help the full backs, particularly Willian on the right flank as Ivanovic looked particularly ragged in both games. As well as Ivanovic looking shaky, Cahill was at fault for two of Arsenal’s goals at the Emirates, and a poor clearance went straight to Jordan Henderson which he duly dispatched past a helpless Thibaut Courtois. Having shipped 5 goals in two games against two of the so-called ‘big six’ with the title race being billed as being tight and amongst several clubs, changes were required to fix the shambles of a situation. Towards the end of the game at the Emirates we saw this, when Conte took Fabregas off for Alonso and switched to a 3-4-3, with Azpilicueta then the right wing back and Ivanovic as the right centre back. Whilst this was to shut up shop to not leak any more after being 3-down at half time, the much-improved defensive stability was clear to all.
Going into the game against Hull the next weekend, and the last game before the October international break, Chelsea had a free week thanks to not being in European competition. This increased time on the training ground can only be a positive for Antonio Conte, in all weeks but especially this where the permanent change in formation was first enacted. When the teamsheet came out, without the knowledge of the exact formation itself, it was difficult to realise who would play where, particularly without the knowledge of Victor Moses’s newfound ability at right wing back. What happened in the subsequent 90 minutes was a classy performance to bounce back, and although may say it was only Hull, breaking down bottom half strugglers away from home is always a difficult task.
The first game back from the October international break, however, was a complete different story. An underperforming (and admittedly weakened through rotation) Leicester were comfortably beaten 3-0, with some outstanding football on display from Chelsea, the likes not seen since the first half of the title winning season of 2014/15. Some again may be tempted to brush this off as “only Leicester”, but let us not forget they are reigning champions, as well as a side that went comfortably through their Champions League group and into the last 16.
This was followed up by yet another outstanding performance and result, this time against Man United and “The Individual” who had managed us over two spells ending last December. A goal within 30 seconds from Pedro foreshadowed the pace with which Chelsea would play, in comparison to which United were pedestrian. Players who had underperformed last season played out of their skins; as if they had a point to prove, or a score to settle, against their former gaffer; and it resulted in United getting torn apart. However, at the other end of the pitch, the new system, with the wing backs retreating to create a back 5 if need be, kept what is a strong attack (at least on paper) quiet.
Skipping the game at the arena formerly known as the Olympic Stadium in the EFL Cup, the amount of seriousness and respect shown to it made obvious by the fact the usually sartorially elegant Conte treated it as dress-down Friday, we shall jump straight ahead to the game at St Mary’s. Another game with the 3-4-3, another clean sheet. The free-flowing football was less on show here, although both goals were things of beauty; instead, it was more of what would traditionally be seen in a European away performance: gift the home side possession, hold back and be defensively solid, and break and be lethal on the counter. Chelsea did exactly this, and did it to a T. Southampton had only lost one league game all calendar year at home, also to Chelsea in February, so it was clear to see this was no easy ride, and Antonio Conte set his team up accordingly.
Following this was undoubtedly the best Chelsea performance in half a decade, as Chelsea smashed what had been the 2nd best defence in the league for 5, and that was a fortunate result for Everton, too: it very easily could have been 8 or 9. Everton weren’t given a look in for the entire 90 minutes, whereas Chelsea were imperious. It was an astounding performance that showed all the pros of the formation and style of play Antonio Conte has put in place at the club. Words alone struggle to do it justice, so I recommend sticking the highlights on YouTube in another tab like I’ve just done for the umpteenth time.
After this was another international break interruption, then a trip up to the North East at the Riverside against Middlesbrough. This was a similar kind of game to the Hull one, with the added caveats that: 1) Boro are a better side than Hull, and 2) nigh on the entire squad had been traipsing and galivanting around the globe on international duty in the week prior, so fitness was not at its peak.
Then came the biggest of them all: the home game against Spurs. This was billed up as the big one by none other than Danny Rose, who after kicking anyone who came near him in May, said this was the fixture he looked out for first in the summer when they were released, then duly picked up his fifth yellow card in the league game prior. As well as that, Spurs lost at Monaco in midweek, rendering them out of the Champions League at the group stage; cue much gloating from us Chelsea fans but meaning that this game had to be won to avoid that from being thrown in our faces, plus the fact we haven’t lost at home to them since February 1990, when a future crisp salesman scored the winner. The first half performance was abysmal, being second best to every ball, every challenge for the first forty-five minutes. However, on the stroke of half time, some great play from Pedro making some space for himself allowed him to hit a superb curler past Hugo Lloris to put Chelsea, rather fortunately, in level at half time. Whatever Antonio Conte said at half time, undoubtedly harsh words, worked, as the second half performance was leaps and bounds better than that of the first, allowing us to get back in the game, culminating in a Victor Moses winner, complete with superb Drogba-esque knee slide. The turnaround shown by the side, without Conte having to make drastic changes at half time like other managers would (and that I was indeed screaming for), meant that I and others have increased faith in both Antonio and the system to provide results regardless of position in a game, something important considering the game at Man City this weekend.
Whilst systems are important (someone tell Roy Hodgson this), the form of the players, the same eleven players that have started the past six league games in a row, is also vital to explain this good run of form; yet it must be said, the link between the formation and player form is intrinsic, tied, and both facilitated by Antonio Conte’s managerial ability. For ease, here’s a list of one to eleven of the side that has started those six league games.
Thibaut Courtois – a player who was shaky last season in goal, and towards to the start of this season, but since the change of formation and the improvement of defensive solidity, his performance has come along leaps and bounds, showing the form he showed at Atletico Madrid and then here in 2014/15 when he justified replacing Petr Cech between the sticks. In addition, the use of David Luiz as a sweeper ahead of him means the exposing of his weakness of playing out from the back has been greatly reduced.
Gary Cahill – at fault for many of the goals in the dip in results earlier this season, especially away at Swansea and Arsenal; but another one whose form has massively improved in the past few games. However, he’s looked like the weakest link in the back three/five, especially when put under pressure in possession in our third. Personally, I’d argue that a fully fit Kurt Zouma would fit better in this system better than Gary Cahill does, but whilst the results stay as is, then there’s no justification for a change.
David Luiz – whilst in John Terry’s absence, Cahill has held the armband, Luiz has been the real leader at the back as the Sweeper (or Libero to show off fancy tactical lingo) in the middle of the back three. Despite being somewhat of a laughing stock in the media in his previous spell and when he returned to the club, he hasn’t put a foot wrong since his return, without getting the praise he should be due. He has looked world class, and a far far cry from the ten year old on a PlayStation that Gary Neville infamously called him.
Cesar Azpilicueta – Showing his outstanding adaptability yet again, having played as a right back and left back and been one of the best in the league at both, is now yet again superb as the right centre back in the three. It’s sentiment to his ability that his form hasn’t dipped since joining Chelsea despite playing everywhere across the back three.
Marcos Alonso – Despite the shock at his signing, especially at the fee paid, and his previous perceived mediocrity at Bolton and Sunderland, his performances have been pivotal to the success of the 3-4-3. Wing backs are key in a formation that has 3 central defenders (as we’ll come onto with Victor Moses), and the stamina of Alonso to get up and down the left flank and be able to support Hazard in attack and Cahill in defence enables the team to be able to flourish. Many have suggested Kenedy or Baba Rahman could return from loan and replace him (I’d agree on the Kenedy front, having been a big fan of his performances last year), however it’s still a bit early for that yet.
Nemanja Matic – As aforementioned, yet another player whose form has taken a massive upturn after the shambles of last year, his ability to win the ball to start attacks and to get from box to box has been vital to the all-round performance of the side.
N’Golo Kanté – undoubtedly the Premier League signing of the season, he’s been utterly superb, with dynamism vital to the success of the team, going around the midfield and putting out the metaphorical fires. Leicester’s downturn in form while trying to continue with a 4-4-2 shows how vital said dynamism was to their success last season.
Victor Moses – Already being pencilled in as many people’s player of the year, his newfound position of right wing back seems natural for him. Although not the finished article yet defensively, he seems a willing learner, and thankful for Conte to have finally been given a chance having impressed in the fourth pre-season in a row yet loaned out in the previous three seasons.
Eden Hazard – Having been missing for most of last season, he turned up just in time to break Spurs hearts and cement a place in Chelsea folklore for that alone. He’s finally re-found the form that made him PFA player of the year, and with the increased freedom enabled by the system and Marcos Alonso, may start to exceed that and reach the levels of Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar and Bale that he’s been hyped up to be for the past few years.
Diego Costa – The league’s top scorer, and the centre point that all attacks revolve around, even if increasingly other people pop up to finish them off (as pointed out by many, Hazard’s average position based on Opta’s stats is more advanced than Costa’s). Having cut a frustrated figure last season and at the start of this, the increased support from Hazard and Pedro means that the aggression that boiled over before is now being channelled in the right manner and is making him play even better than ever before in a blue shirt.
Pedro – Last but not least, Pedro has finally shown the form that he had at Barcelona, and had done in that superb debut at The Hawthorns last season. Having filled Willian’s place after the former was on compassionate leave, the Brazilian has been unable to return because of Pedro’s blistering form, the increased pace and pressing ability being used to great effect.
So all in all, the change in formation towards the end of September, aided by a manager with experience in coaching 3 at the back but also the pragmatism to work with what he’s got (playing a right back at centre back and winger at wing back) and making it work with good coaching, and that good coaching enabled by no European football, means that the perfect storm has brewed for Chelsea to create a sparkling run of form.
However, we cannot rest on our laurels, as Liverpool have a similarly perfect storm, with no Europe, and a manager used to coaching a pressing game implementing one; and Man City, despite playing in Europe, having the strength in depth to cope with that and stay strong in a title race. Saturday’s early kick off will be vital in what will be an extremely tight title race, however after the events of last season, it feels good to be confident about watching Chelsea play once again.