Chelsea are dominating in the Barclays Premier League at the moment and have been dominating all season. As it stands, they have an eight-point lead over Arsenal and a nine-point lead over Tottenham. Considering Chelsea were generally poor last season, many are wondering how they turned it around so quickly.
Chelsea finished in 10th place last season in the Premier League with a total of 50 points, the worst finish for the club in many years. This season, Chelsea are currently in 1st and have already eclipsed their point total from last season with almost half the season left. This is an incredible turnaround in such a short amount of time.. Most of this newfound success comes from the appointment of Antonio Conte and the few acquisitions they received over the summer like N’golo Kante and Marcos Alonso.
When the season started, Chelsea were popular candidates for a top-four finish because of the squad they have but also because of the appointment of Conte. His record at Juventus was simply outstanding as he imposed his own system on the team. He also imposed that system on the Italian National Team, who he succeeded with in the European Cup, despite the fact that some considered the team that Italy brought to the cup among the worst in the country’s history. Before the season started, Chelsea brought some players into the club like Kante, Marcos Alonso, Batshuayi, and David Luiz.
Conte did the right thing in not buying superstars, but rather sought out players that he thought would work well under his system and players that are generally underrated. Manchester United and Manchester City have brought in many superstar players like Pogba, Ibrahimovic, Mkhitaryan, Bravo, Stones, and Gündoğan, yet neither team is currently in the top four places in the Premier League table.
At Chelsea, things started off pretty well with 2-1 wins over West Ham and Watford and a 3-0 win against Burnley. Conte used a 4-1-4-1 system with Kante protecting the defense while the five in front of him did most of the attacking. Chelsea played conservative football and tried to keep the shots to a minimum on both sides. This is a formation that is more Premier League-like and less of what Conte was used to. After those opening three wins Chelsea’s form took a huge dip with a 2-2 draw versus strugglers Swansea and two consecutive loses to Liverpool and Arsenal, with the defeat to Arsenal being a quite embarrassing 3-0 loss. Conte simply isn’t as capable at implementing this system since it is not what he is used to. He used these games to show that he needs to change this system and take a more Italian approach to the Premier League.
Conte changed to a 3-4-3 system which was more similar to what he was used to. Chelsea then went on a run of 13 straight wins in the league as well as only conceding four goals in that entire period. So what changed? How does this system work? For one, this system gets the best out of the squad that Conte has. Three center backs is something we see all the time in Serie A and is starting to be used more elsewhere. In Conte’s system, David Luiz is the center of the three defenders as he is the pivot where many passes are sent to. David Luiz is perfect as the center of the three because he will naturally receive the ball more since he is in the middle and this suits his strengths. David Luiz is actually not a great player defensively, but is a good passer of the ball from the back. In this system David Luiz has more of a control over the game and is able to send passes all over the pitch. Luiz is flanked by Cahill and Azpilicueta, the latter of which was brilliantly transformed from a wing back to a center back. When one of them makes a mistake, Luiz is usually behind them or next to them to cover it up. This is similar to Conte’s system at Juventus, with Bonucci being the pivot with a good range of passing while the other 2 (Barzagli and Chiellini) are more physical defenders. Cahill is more like Chiellini in that they are both strong and good in the air while Azpilicueta is similar to Barzagli in both read the game very well and skillfully marking attackers. Azpilicueta is so good defensively that he can easily slot into the CB position. One of the things Conte changed early on was to take John Terry out. He clearly doesn’t have the stamina or fitness left to compete at such a high level. Also, with the four in the back system, Chelsea struggled because Ivanovic isn’t a true right back as he doesn’t offer enough attack and isn’t quick enough against fast wingers.
The four in the midfield are usually Marcos Alonso as a left midfielder, Matic (sometimes Fabregas) and Kante as the two central midfielders, and Victor Moses as the right midfielder. In Conte’s system, Alonso and Moses drop back as left/right backs when Chelsea are defending and they get very high up the pitch, putting in crosses and taking shots, when Chelsea are attacking. One of the other reasons that Chelsea has been so successful is because they bought Kante from previous Premier League champions, Leicester City. He was probably Leicester’s best overall player last season and has continued that form at Chelsea. Conte knew that Kante would be an incredible acquisition, which is why he asked Chelsea to get him. Kante posses a fine defensive game, reads the game perfectly, breaks up the opposing team’s play and is a precise tackler. He also has a good range of passing, moves the ball quickly, makes numerous interceptions and he never stops running. He even manages to win balls in the air despite being only 5’7”. Alongside Matic, who is much taller and very strong physically and in the air, they work together perfectly. Kante and Matic are both top class defensive minded midfielders which makes it very difficult for other teams to run at Chelsea’s center backs or reach Chelsea’s goal. When Chelsea need to become more attacking, they usually replace Matic with Fabregas who is more offensively minded with his fine passing and vision. Most coaches would use Fabregas every game because they see what he has done in the past but Conte made the bold choice to keep the center of the midfield very defensive and to give players like Pedro and Eden Hazard more creative roles.
While most coaches would suggest to their players to score more goals than the opponent, Conte’s philosophy seems to be to concede less goals than the opponent. He prefers to have all of his players behind the ball rather than to keep possession the entire game. Coaches like Pep Guardiola at Manchester City haven’t worked out because his system is flawed if he doesn’t have Barcelona-caliber players. Guardiola prefers to keep the ball the entire game and break down his opponent. The problem with this is that is in the event of a misplaced pass or an error with controlling the ball, the other team can easily counterattack. Conte knows this and prefers to have the other teams make mistakes so Chelsea can capitalize.
When attacking, Conte likes to use Hazard as a left winger, Pedro (sometimes Willian) as a right winger and Diego Costa at a striker. Hazard looks much more confident in his abilities this season and has changed into more of a fundamental player. He is working harder and moving into good positions. These types of things come with coaching. Diego Costa has always been clinical and is continuing his scoring success this season. Chelsea have often dropped their players deep and then sprung to life on the counter attack, leaving great dribblers like Hazard and Pedro to take on the remaining defenders, or in many cases, pass it to Costa who is a top finisher.
When Chelsea have the ball, Marcos Alonso and Moses get high up the pitch which allows Hazard and/or Pedro to drift more inward towards the penalty box or a little deeper to receive the ball and create a scoring chance. Matic and Kante are usually reluctant to get up the field, so that if the other team gets the ball, Chelsea will have a number of players ready to retain possession once again.
This season, Chelsea players are covering much more ground during the average game. Conte is a coach who always expects his players to have a high work rate. Everyone defends when Chelsea isn’t in possession of the ball. Even Diego Costa works hard to put pressure on the opposing teams backline. Conte doesn’t mind if the other team has the ball, as long as they aren’t creating multiple chances. In the game vs. Manchester City, Chelsea had less shots and less possession but the shots Manchester City were taking were not very threatening. When Manchester City misplaced a pass, Chelsea were ready to counter attack quickly and this is how each of their three goals were scored. Chelsea don’t always let the other team control the possession, though. Against Everton, Chelsea won 5-0 while having more than 60% of the possession as well as letting Everton only take one shot the entire game.
Even though Conte is doing a fantastic job at Chelsea, there is another reason for their success that isn’t about him or the players. Since they finished in 10th place last season, Chelsea are not in a European competition like the Champions League or the Europa League. They can focus most of their attention on the Premier League while other teams have to prepare for games midweek and traveling to different countries.
Not everything is perfect at Chelsea as they do have some weaknesses. Tottenham ended Chelsea’s winning run in early January with a 2-0 win. Tottenham coach Mauricio Pochettino boldly matched Conte’s 3-4-3 system, had home field advantage, and his players seemed very motivated to get a result. The opposing 3-4-3 may have caught Conte by surprise. Chelsea wasn’t terrible but their defensive vulnerabilities were exposed. Pochettino singled out Azpilicueta as the weak link in Chelsea’s backline because at 5’10”, center back really isn’t his natural position. Because of his height, Dele Alli of Tottenham kept making runs into the box from the midfield which caused problems in the air for Azpilicueta. On both goals, Dele Alli made a run to the far post where Azpilicueta was and was able to head it into the goal. Eriksen kept floating balls towards Harry Kane and Alli to exposes the Chelsea backline aerially. Both goals from Tottenham looked exactly the same. Alderweireld man marked Diego Costa out of the game and was able to take him on physically. This was also master-class in pressing from Mauricio Pochettino’s men. Tottenham kept pressing Chelsea whenever they had the ball. They suffocated Chelsea and left them with little space to work in. Pochettino used Conte’s system. When coaches play the same style, the better team usually wins because it is man against man, the fact that this startled Chelsea, as well as Tottenham having the backing of the crowd at home made it easier for Tottenham to win here. This game showed that Chelsea can be beaten in Conte’s 3-4-3 system, but it would take a brave coach to play Conte man for man as other clubs like Everton have tried and failed.
Chelsea are somewhat weak in regards to individual backline players, as Conte really wanted to get new center backs over the summer. Azpilicueta was turned into a center back because Conte’s knew the other center backs aren’t very good. It seems like David Luiz was Conte’s 4th or 5th choice for a center back as Chelsea tried to buy Manolas of Roma, Romagnoli of AC Milan and Koulibaly of Napoli before they ended up buying David Luiz. This shows us that Conte knew that they would have trouble as he was used to having some of the best center backs in the world at his disposal with Barzagli, Bonucci and Chiellini on Juventus.
Currently, Chelsea look as if they are going to win the Premier League, which is incredible to believe after finishing at the bottom half of the table last season. It will be difficult for them in the coming weeks, as they have to take on Liverpool and then Arsenal. Conte and his squad have brought new life into the club. It will be interesting to see if other coaches can figure out a way to break Chelsea down and stop them from running away with the league. To do that, it will take a real tactical genius or some key injuries to Chelsea’s squad. Right now though, it looks like they will go all the way.