CHELSEA: Masterful Tactics:
Antonio Conte has signed an improved two-year contract at Chelsea, with his squad in the early stages of preparations to try and emulate last season’s excellence.
The Blues utterly dominated as Conte took a successful first swing at England’s top flight, a streak of 13 wins on the spin late in 2016 sending them well clear of a chasing pack that spent most of the campaign tripping over each other.
But former Juventus and Italy boss Conte had to show his mettle before it became plain sailing, with a pivotal tactical alteration and shrewd management of a certain big dressing room ego – the latter move now looking very much a means to an end – laying vital foundations.
CONTE’S TACTICAL MASTERSTROKE
Saturday September 24, 18:15 – This is when Chelsea’s season really began.
As Michael Oliver signalled half-time at the Emirates Stadium, Conte knew the game was up. Goals from Alexis Sanchez, Theo Walcott and Mesut Ozil meant defeat at Arsenal was a formality. But it would prompt the mother of responses.
The 4-2-4 that had served Conte so well with Siena and Bari was out and a three-man defence – utilised dazzlingly at Juventus and with Italy – would be the bedrock for a goalless second half, and then 13 wins in a row.
The system. and those who fitted it best, become set in stone.
Thirteen times in the league last season, Chelsea’s teamsheet read: Courtois; Azpilicueta, David Luiz, Cahill; Moses, Kante, Matic, Alonso; Pedro, Hazard; Costa.
Only Manchester United’s title-winners of 1993 and Leeds United’s 1994-95 side have had a more settled XI in the Premier League era. Alex Ferguson picked Schmeichel; Parker, Pallister, Bruce, Irwin; Sharpe, Ince, McClair, Giggs; Cantona and Hughes 19 times out of 42 fixtures, at the tail end of an era of smaller squads when rotation was very much a dirty word.
SIGNING N’GOLO KANTE
France midfielder Kante has won 56 times in 72 Premier League games, or in 77.7 per cent of them, if you prefer.
After masterminding Leicester City’s improbable march to glory in 2015-16, Claudio Ranieri said of Kante: “I thought he must have a pack full of batteries hidden in his shorts.”
Batteries eventually run down, but PFA Player of the Year Kante is yet to show any signs of going into stand-by.
Chelsea’s general domination of games last term meant Kante did not need to be the omnipresent defensive pest he was for the Foxes. Still, only Everton’s Idrissa Gueye (135) made more than his 127 tackles and he ranked sixth for interceptions in the Premier League – Southampton’s Oriol Romeu the only midfielder to make more.
THE REBIRTH OF MOSES
You certainly wouldn’t have seen it coming… 22 games, two goals. 23 games, four goals. 31 games, three goals. Victor Moses’ three seasons on loan at Liverpool, Stoke and West Ham hardly earmarked him as one of the crucial cogs in a title-winning defence.
But it is a position in which Conte has a talent for adaptation. Antonio Candreva has been one of Serie A’s most potent wingers in recent years, but was utilised deeper by Conte for the national team. Candreva said of his then Italy coach in 2015: “He prepares games with a maniacal attention to detail, both offensively and defensively.”
Such mania cemented Candreva’s international spot and has made a Premier League regular out of Moses, whose absence was touted as the key factor in April’s shock defeat at home to Crystal Palace.
Candreva was suggested as a potential target, amid a host of other wing-back options, but Conte solved the problem from within, saying of Moses during the campaign: “He deserved to stay with us this season, and also now he’s deserving to play in the line-up.”
GETTING COSTA AND HAZARD BACK ONSIDE
Eden Hazard and Diego Costa ailed badly during the shambolic title defence that ended Jose Mourinho’s second stint with Chelsea prematurely in December 2015. Conte now appears to have concluded Costa is not worth the trouble long-term at Stamford Bridge, but there is no doubt he rejuvenated the key duo last term.
Kept on a leash by the Italian – one that evidently strained once too often – Costa moved away from the boisterous toddler that Mourinho let pick fights across the pitch and rediscovered his scoring touch.
Costa scored in all but four of Chelsea’s 13 consecutive victories between October and New Year’s Eve.
Then came the blip. Having netted 14 goals in his first 19 games of the season, Costa managed six in 16 after a reported row with Conte amid reports of a mega-bucks move to China.
After stewing in a goalless run of five games, Costa struck twice and assisted Hazard’s opener in a 4-2 win over Southampton, which erased memories of a 2-0 reverse at the hands of Mourinho at Old Trafford.
Hazard, meanwhile, was simply sublime and a return of 16 league goals represents his best for the Blues. As he approaches his peak years, the Belgian’s redeployment as a floating playmaker behind Costa and that wondrous solo goal against Arsenal suggest he is back in the upper echelons of global performers.
CAPTAIN, LEADER, LEGEND… LEAVING
January 2016, John Terry reveals Chelsea have not offered him a new contract and he will leave at the end of the season. Outrage ensues, the club reverse their decision and the skipper remains.
April 2017, Chelsea confirm they have not offered Terry a new deal and he will leave at the end of the season. A collective shrug of the shoulders welcomes the news as the skipper began the contemplative process that would lead him to Aston Villa.
Terry made 717 appearances for the Blues, a record 580 of them as captain, but between Conte’s revolution at the back and full-time in the title-clinching win at West Brom he played just 16 minutes of Premier League football.
In the heart of the defence was David Luiz, but not the David Luiz you remember.
The wild noodle bowl of hair remains, and a 30-yard free-kick sensation against Liverpool is evidence of the lingering ‘joga bonito’ in his heart.
But David Luiz 2.0 was a hard-nosed stopper, making over 100 defensive interventions (tackles, interceptions and blocks), while the most telling number of all may well be zero – the number of mistakes that have led to opposition goals this season.