CHELSEA ARE DOING SOMETHING RIGHT ALL OF A SUDDEN, TIME TO FIND OUT WHAT THAT IS
They started off well, coasted for a while then slumped. Two high profile defeats to Title Rivals Liverpool and Arsenal sowed doubts into the hearts of the Blues and things couldn’t look any worse as they sat in 8th place in a season where they weren’t in the champions league and were expected to be real challengers to Manchester city for the title. A quick flash back:
It was half-time at Arsenal, his team were 3-0 down and Conte could hold it in no longer. His players were not entirely surprised. They had seen the steam rising.He was still boiling mad when he fielded post-match questions.
‘Bad game,’ he whispered. ‘We didn’t have the right attitude. We must look in our own house for the problem.’
A tired and worn out voice it may have seemed at the time, but Conte knew what needed to be done. After mapping out proposals HE wanted to execute over a lunchtime meeting or two with owner Roman Abramovich, the Chelsea manager set to work.
The most striking change was the switch to a back-three. Having delivered him success in the past, Conte has faith in the system and here it has helped him impose his trademark.
‘You can recognise my team,’ said Conte, four games into this winning run, before casting aside Everton 5-0. ‘More pressure, we stay short, we come back, we work.’
There have been elements of good fortune, too. Injuries to Cesc Fabregas, Branislav Ivanovic and John Mikel Obi crystallised his selection issues.
Conte had become convinced Ivanovic and Gary Cahill could not play side-by-side on the right of his back-four, especially when he had asked them to play out from the back. Neither Fabregas nor Mikel had the legs to do what he was demanding from two central midfielders.
When Willian and Oscar were given compassionate leave after family deaths in Brazil, he had little choice but to turn to Pedro, who injected the extreme pace the team craved.
Pedro is thriving without the burden of defensive instruction. As is Eden Hazard, who has scored five in five since the Arsenal defeat.
‘I must focus on my offensive role,’ said Hazard, while on duty with Belgium. ‘The wing-backs do the defensive work, that’s the major change.’
Hazard operates in this system as a traditional inside-left. He can go wide or inside through the channel to support his centre-forward, just as he does for his country.
‘Chelsea will claim we followed them,’ joked Belgium coach Roberto Martinez, last week, when asked about Hazard’s transition to a slightly different role. Now, 11 games into the Premier League, Hazard and Diego Costa have 16 goals between them, same as the whole of last season.
Hazard cannot escape the contrast, although a problem with a hip bone spur nagged away at him last season and meant he was not pain-free until the final five games of the campaign.
Costa appears hungry, focused on goals not arguments, aside from one public dispute with his manager late on in a 3-0 win against Leicester when he demanded to be replaced and was duly left on for the 90 minutes.
Chelsea’s forwards are expected to contribute to the collective effort but are ably covered by a midfield quartet of great stamina and selflessness: Victor Moses, N’Golo Kante, Nemanja Matic and Marcos Alonso.
The formation change has revived Matic and released Kante to be the livewire he was for Leicester.
David Luiz lampooned in the summer as a calamity inducing basket case, has excelled in the centre of the back three and Cesar Azpilicueta — teased about his relentless work-rate by team-mates who claim he runs to training — has found a position to perfectly suit his strengths.
The absence of European football afforded Conte time to drive the changes into the minds of his players with a blast of double-sessions, including long and repetitive pattern-of-play exercises.
He helps set out cones and leads virtually every session as his team practise tactical routines until they are second nature. No wonder he imports his favourite throat lozenges from Italy he does a lot of shouting in training.
Any player not exactly where they are told to be can expect an invitation to study the video evidence.
Video footage stops the argument in Conte’s view, and Chelsea’s IT analysts have become among the busiest people at the club, unsung heroes of the revolution as the manager’s mind whirrs at a rate faster than their technology.
He will request a series of clips in the afternoon before he leaves and a new set when he returns the next day because an idea sprang out in the night. He is often found scouring footage in the morning before training.
After the Arsenal defeat, Conte returned to his pre-season policy of splitting the squad in two and working outside with one half while the others worked on their body strength in the gym with fitness experts Paolo Bertelli, Julio Tous and Constantino Coratti.
Conte insists he would rather be playing in Europe but empty weeks offered time to debrief thoroughly, drive team-shape, improve fitness and ease off again to prepare well for the next test.
He has restored a badly needed ‘winning mentality’ according to the players, who clearly feel an affinity with a manager who played at an elite level in a midfield with Zinedine Zidane, which ought to count for little but helps when he demands higher standards of commitment or discipline.
Players are not summoned to his office like naughty schoolchildren. If he wants to make a point, he does it without fuss beside the training pitch.
Nor are they bombarded by texts, a favourite motivational method of Jose Mourinho which had worn thin by the time he departed. Conte values the power of a concise message but prefers to talk.
At the same time, he manages egos, taking care to involve John Terry, with a late appearance against Everton when the game was won. Terry lost his place while injured but Conte knows he will need him.
Technical director Michael Emenalo is delighted to see young players Nathaniel Chalobah, Ola Aina and Ruben Loftus-Cheek given chances.
Conte’s human touch was noted when he granted Willian and Oscar time in Brazil after family bereavements and sent them messages of support.
His backroom staff are popular and polite around the camp and a rare team outing for a meal at Nobu after the 4-0 win against Manchester United was hailed a success.
Of course, the positive energy is amplified by performances and results but Conte seized his moment and has been rewarded. The upturn means Chelsea approach the transfer market without panic in the air despite Conte’s desire for more cover and competition in areas specific to this system.
Even inside the camp, there is a wariness; a feeling that everything has fallen nicely into place but the balance is fragile, with little scope to survive the loss of key players.
Chelsea’s enjoyed their extra midweek time off as they headed out for a team bonding meal.
Conte’s priority is to add at least one midfielder to compete with Kante and Matic but this will probably hinge on selling or loaning-out Fabregas, Mikel or Oscar. Having claimed Ivanovic, Aina or Pedro can do the job, there is a lack of options at wing-back.
His first-choice players have been available. Seven have started every Premier League game: Thibaut Courtois, Azpilicueta, Cahill, Kante, Matic, Hazard and Costa.
Since Luiz broke into the team, he too has been ever-present. Since Hull, and the introduction of the back-three, there has been just one change in five games, Pedro in for Willian.
The transformation has been remarkable. Six games into the campaign, Chelsea were eighth, eight points adrift of Manchester City.
Five games later and they are one point above City and one point behind leaders Liverpool. They go to Middlesbrough on Sunday having won five in a row without conceding since the explosion at the Emirates.
Only a brave man will bet against them .