In a league filled with some of the best managers in the world in Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho, Jurgen Klopp, Arsene Wenger, Mauricio Pochchetino, very few placed their bets on Antonio Conte, who was back from an over-achieving Euro campaign. No one could blame the doubters! It was widely regarded that Chelsea would likely have a transitional year under The Former Juve boss, which will see him alter the club according to his vision in order to challenge for titles nad trophies in the future. And that’s exactly what it seemed to be when Chelsea started off the season with the conventional (and widely dreaded) 4-2-3-1. All seemed smooth for Conte and the blues as they pulled last-gasp winners out of the hat multiple times until Swansea held them for a 2-2 draw. Then during Game Week 5, Chelsea, having taken 10 points off a possible 12(quite decent) welcomed Liverpool to The Stamford Bridge.
It was this game which exposed the weakness of Chelsea, as they looked crestfallen and walked out with a 2-1 loss. Conte’s first defeat as a Chelsea Manager. This was the team that started against Liverpool and a similar team started against Arsenal. Which also ended in a 3-0 loss. Odds were slashed on Conte getting sacked as Chelsea manager, as the italian looked tactically out of depth as he failed to lift them out of last season’s misery.
What went wrong with the good old 4-3-2-1, you ask? Well let us see:
Exposed Defence: Except Azpilicueta, no one amongst the back four never felt quite secure while enduring attacks. Ivanovic had become too immobile to tackle the modern, fast wingers. While the defensive partnership of David Luiz and Gary Cahill simply lacked coordination or the leadership qualities you expect from a successful Centre-Back pairing.
An ill-equipped Midfield: While Chelsea fans might have rejoiced at the possibilities that the dynamic duo of Ngolo Kante and Matic could bring to the team, they were left unimpressed as Matic, due to uncertainties in Defence often looked either too secure to initiate counter attacks or miles out of position while defending some. Ngolo Kante still was the well-acclaimed Machine that won Leicester an unprecedented title, but at times, looked out of depth to play an out-and-out playmaker role when he was suddenly provided with a gaping hole in the midfield.
The Isolated Attack: By this time, all EPL clubs had figured out one sure thing. You force Hazard out on the flanks, you force him out of the game. As the right-backs continuously bullied the little Belgian to corners, it became more and more difficult for him to cut inside and provide balls to Diego Costa. That being said, Diego Costa. seemed to be one man army during the initial games as he snatched wins away from oppositions hands more than once this season.
Antonio Conte suddenly abandoned the 4-2-3-1 and went with his familiar 3-4-3. Playing Moses and the deadline day signing Alonso in the Wing Back positions. Suddenly, Chelsea looked impossible to win or even score against as they went on a 13- match winning streak which proved to be essential for their title bid.
The Defense: This defensive setup of Conte was a master-stroke as playing Luiz as the deepest Centre-Back(or sweeper) meant his ill-advised forward runs were restricted. Azpilicueta proved to be one of the best mobile, ball-playing Centre-Backs in the league and seemed to cover every single slip up caused by Moses, someone equipped with lesser Defensive talents. Cahill took the Leadership role as he organised the defence and was more confident and rock solid on and off the ball.
The Midfield: Both the wing backs were tasked with only one job. Run, run and run even more! And that, they did! They secured the flanks by providing resistance against crossers and also provided overlapping runs to the attackers. Both Alonso(who was out of favour when he initially arrived) and Moses(who was widely expected to leave Chelsea on yet another loan) turned out to be revelations. An amazing, career changing transformations for both of them.
With the added security of a 5- man defence, Matic was provided sufficient niche to run the show. While Matic might not be as technically equipped as someone like Fabregas, his reading of the game was unparalleled as he formed a solid Central Mid partnership with Ngolo Kante. The PFA Player of the year was back to his original job description. Run, intercept, break up play, pass the ball to someone who can create an attack, and run even more! This formation change would go on to win him critical acclaim and to be regarded as the best CM in the EPL and one of the best in the world.
The Attack: Hazard and Alonso doubled down on the opposition defence, which usually allowed the forwards in himself, Pedro and Costa ample space in the 30-yard area. From where there was a realistic chance of a brilliant shot going in(as exhibited by Pedro and Hazard more than a couple of times). And it also allowed Diego Costa to be in a constant touch with the tiny tricksters and make way and more goals for the team.
And thus, Chelsea went on to lift the Premier League title in quite a style by becoming one of the most exciting teams to watch while being one of the best defences in the league.
Room for Improvements:
This team succeeded in outplaying Chelsea to a point where it, at times, almost reminded Chelsea of the 2015-16 season. Yes, the Arsenal Team which started against Chelsea in the FA Cup Final succeeded in nullifying Chelsea’s strong point by mirroring their formation(Not the first team to do this). However, Arsenal succeeded in deploying the formation to an absolute perfection which resulted in a one-to-one battle with the Chelsea players. Chelsea players inadvertently lost these battles as the looked tired, jaded and at times, out of their depths and abilities.
Arsenal succeeded in uncovering the technical limitations of both Matic and Moses. While they attacked with a venomous ruthlessness which capitalised on a lapse of concentration by Chelsea players seconds after scoring a goal.
All in all, Chelsea need to look for a Central Midfielder who could provide an amalgam between Cesc Fabregas and Nemanja Matic, so as to not look both, lacking any defensive skill as well as possessing considerable attacking pedigree.
Chelsea should be desperate to look for an upgrade on Victor Moses, who was no short of a revelation this season but could be easily exposed if Chelsea go deep into UEFA Tournaments and face stern tests against top European Teams.