This season in the Premier League we’ve been honoured with a glut of top class managers. The three managers who have taken their places at three of the so-called top teams are Pep Guardiola at Man City, Jose Mourinho at Man United and of course, Antonio Conte at Chelsea. Whilst Pep and Jose are expected to make up the top two this season, Conte’s Chelsea remain an unknown component – will they flop like they did last season, or will they storm the league and challenge for the title?
Part of the problem with analysing this Chelsea team is that twelve months ago they were Champions of the Premier League, but their 2015/16 season was an absolute horror show. So the big question is: was the last season a blip, or was it the sign of a decline amongst an aging squad? Did Chelsea’s players have a bad season, or are they simply past their best?
The answer of course, is somewhere in the middle. Players like John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic may never again be the imperious defenders that they were several years ago, and there are question marks over whether the likes of Matic and Cahill are capable of fulfilling their potential under Conte, or whether it’s too late for them. And then on the other hand, there are players like Eden Hazard and Diego Costa, who clearly have another gear to find after last season.
Strangely, Chelsea’s first game of the season seems to have almost suck under the radar, with all the hype about Pep and Jose, not to mention the madness that was Arsenal v Liverpool and Leicester’s failure to start the defence of their title with a win. But on Monday night, we saw the first glimpse of Antonio Conte’s Chelsea. So what has changed?
In truth, very little actually. On Saturday we saw Pep Guardiola’s City show signs of tactical evolution, but struggle to make a major improvement in terms of performance. On Sunday we saw Jose Mourinho’s United do their best impression of Louis Van Gaal’s United. Now on Monday night, we saw a Chelsea side that did not look remarkably different to the Chelsea side we’re used to either.
In terms of players, there was only one new signing on display from the start, title winner N’Golo Kante anchoring the midfield, although we did see Batshuayi off the bench. And in terms of formation, there was no grand revolution – no switch to three at the back, as Conte did with Italy, and no switch to 4-4-2 with Hazard up front either (another suggestion that had been put forward). Instead Chelsea played what was in essence a 4-1-4-1, with Kante in the hole between defence and midfield, a familiar back five, Hazard remaining on the left wing and Diego Costa up front. So more tweaks than a complete overhaul, much as we saw over the weekend.
In terms of style and performance, again this was a Chelsea side that did not look vastly different to last season. They lacked incisive quality in the middle of the park, as Matic, Kante and Oscar is not a central midfield trio that screams creativity, Willian on the right remains industrious, but in truth, apart from Hazard and Costa, this was a Chelsea side that lacked flair and lacked goals.
A brief word on their opponents West Ham, who were poor, giving the ball in their own half so often it was mind-bending, which led to the first goal as Azpilicueta caught out Antonio, pinching the ball off him just outside his own box and charging into the area, only to be dragged down and secure a spot kick, which Hazard summarily dispatched.
How much of West Ham being awful can be attributed to Chelsea making them look poor is a valid question. Chelsea’s high press caused them problems and defensively they looked much more solid with Kante shielding the back four. But West Ham should have learned their lesson in the first half, when Mark Noble gave the ball away cheaply and Winston Reid almost conceded a penalty. The high press was causing them problems, and they had Andy Carroll up front. It doesn’t take adding two and two to make four.
But Chelsea did concede off a set piece, and that is the sort of thing that will drive Conte mad. A failure to deal with a corner led to James Collins slamming home a wonderful left foot strike inside the box, and that should not be allowed to happen.
But Chelsea changed their tactics, throwing on Moses to add some pace and Batshuayi to partner Costa. I wouldn’t say throwing on an extra striker and a couple of attacking wingers was a piece of tactical genius from Conte, and people certainly have a capacity to over-hype simple decisions when they’re made by incredibly tactical managers, but nevertheless, it was a brave move to take off Hazard, even though he was starting to struggle in the match.
When they scored the winning goal, it had a sense of familiarity about it too, as it was scored by Diego Costa, who should not have been on the pitch to score it. Costa had already been booked when he went in late on West Ham keeper Adrian, catching him on the standing leg. Sky Sports insisted he was entitled to go for the ball, but it was a late and dangerous tackle, that could easily have broken Adrian’s leg, and he should have gone, only to slam in a late and deserved winner.
And in that moment, you could see exactly what Conte has already brought to the table with this Chelsea side. Whilst his tactical influence is yet to exert itself over the squad, there is no doubt that his passion has. Conte exploded when the goal was scored, and there was a feeling around Stamford Bridge of optimism and joy that simply hasn’t been present in the last twelve months. The players looked confident, and up for the game. There was a mentality added that seemed to rejuvenate the squad. Eden Hazard in particular looked like the player of the 14/15 season, rather than the shell he was last year.
So overall, it’s too early to make judgements on Antonio Conte’s Chelsea. Much like Pep and Jose, he’s going to need the magic ingredient of time in order to get this team playing his way and stamp his own distinctive style on the squad. The change at these clubs will not be a revolution, but an evolution. But for now, he has certainly rejuvenated this Chelsea team and with the players that they have, for now that might well be enough.
By Tom Holmes on 17th August, 2016
Twitter – @TomHolmes19