Seven consecutive wins have seen Chelsea’s Premier League title odds slashed from 18/1 to 2/1. A 3-0 defeat at the Emirates Stadium on 24th September suggested that Antonio Conte had plenty of work on his hands, though the Italian isn’t afraid of some hard graft, and it’s not taken long to start moulding a new-look Blues team.
JoséMourinho illustrated during the 2014/15 season that this squad of players could win a Premier League title and the personnel is not markedly different, with David Luiz having returned to Stamford Bridge this term and Marcos Alonso providing some dynamic width in the left wing-back position.
N’GoloKanté has also added midfield steel, and he seems the preferred option ahead of CescFàbregas, who was previously used either as a defensive or attacking midfielder by Mourinho, depending on the opposition.
Fàbregas has become something of a forgotten man at Chelsea, thanks to the superb form of Kanté and NemanjaMatić. It’s no surprise that Leicester City seem to be struggling this term without the influence of the diminutive Frenchmanwho played such a key role in that amazing title success last term.
The Conte fall before the rise
On Friday 16th September 2016, Liverpool arrived for an evening Premier League clash. For the first 30 minutes of the game, Chelsea couldn’t get near the ball. Operating with a 4-4-2 formation, the Reds ran rings around their opponents, with DejanLovren breaking the deadlock before Jordan Henderson scored a stunning second.
Despite a stirring second-half fightback, which saw Diego Costa score a consolation goal, the abiding memory of the match was the fact that Liverpool had looked like genuine title contenders and Chelsea had been roundly outplayed on their own patch.
Further evidence appeared to be served up at the Emirates, where Gary Cahill and David Luiz looked like a calamitous pairing as Arsenal stormed into a 3-0 first-half lead. Conte gesticulated wildly from the touchline, and there were to be casualties from this match.
Indeed, it’s worth noting that Fàbregas featured for 55 minutes of this match before being hooked. Willian also played 70 minutes before a change was made, while BranislavIvanović operated as right-back and didn’t leave a favourable impression.
All change at Hull
The seven days between the Arsenal defeat and Chelsea’s game at the KCOM Stadium led Conte to do some serious soul-searching with his managerial staff.
Victor Moses had been an unused substitute for the London derby, and Marcos Alonso had played a large chunk of the second half. There could be no knowing that the pair would now be installed as wing-backs for a new-look Blues defence, which would see CésarAzpilicueta form part of a three-man central rearguard.
The much-maligned Luiz was tasked with marshalling the entire Chelsea defence, with Cahill coming out of his early-season slump to help the team win 2-0 against the Tigers. The match was notable for the way that Hull didn’t create any chances of note, with the Blues going into the international break feeling better about themselves.
This new-look Chelsea side really started to purr after the World Cup qualifiers, with Hazard and Costa springing into life against Leicester City, where the champions of 2016 were soundly beaten.
Conte’s only real change to the team saw Pedro come in at the expense of the injured Willian, with the Spaniard grabbing his opportunity with both hands. The former Barcelona forward continues to play a key role for a Chelsea side that is now enjoying a seven-match winning run.
However, the performances of Hazard and Costa around this time were particularly eye-catching, especially in light of the way that they performed during last season’s ill-fated campaign.
Hazard relieved of defensive duties, Costa now disciplined
At the time of writing, Costa has been walking a disciplinary tightrope for several weeks. However, the Spanish international has dodged the referee’s notebook for the past six Premier League games and the forward is letting his football do the talking right now.
Costa is not getting embroiled in fisticuffs with opposition defenders. He is simply doing his job and making a very decent fist of it. The striker has racked up 13 goals this season, and his all-round forward play has been highly impressive, with the 28-year-old genuinely looking like a reformed character.
Earlier in the season, Costa could have seen red on two occasions, with matches against West Ham and Watford seeing the former Atlético Madrid player clashing with opposition players, though he has calmed down dramatically since those August days.
Many say that you can’t have this type of player at his best without the aggression and the playing on the edge, though Costa is dispelling this particular theory even if that fifth yellow card is inevitable.
As for Hazard, it was clear that the Belgian began to care little for Mourinho. Before the 2015/16 season started, the latter was touting Hazard to join the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in terms of the level that he was capable of reaching. A bright pre-season suggested that the PFA Player of the Year could hit new heights.
However, an incident involving club medic Eva Carneiro seemed to play a part in turning key members of Chelsea’s squad against their manager, and Hazard decided to stop playing for Mourinho. Whether you feel that’s acceptable or not is another matter, though the midfielder notably wanted to come off the pitch at Leicester last season despite his manager encouraging him to continue playing.
Hazard started to play a lot better once GuusHiddink replaced Mourinho temporarily, and he has certainly appreciated the approach from Conte, which has seen the playmaker relieved of defensive duties.
There are few players who can enjoy the luxury of a relatively free role and a modest amount of tracking back, though Hazard can now benefit from the new-look 3-4-3 formation, which features Kanté and Matić in the engine room.
The clean sheets keep coming for Chelsea
Having beaten Hull and Leicester, it was time for Manchester United to supposedly come to Stamford Bridge and offer a test. However, Chelsea were a goal ahead within a minute as they wiped the floor with the Red Devils.
Mourinho cut a forlorn figure on the touchline and had the audacity to criticise Conte at the final whistle for over-celebrating when the Blues scored a fourth goal to add further humiliation on a manager who is increasingly looking like a spent force in the Premier League.
That was win and clean sheet number three, with Chelsea then shutting out Southampton at St Mary’s as they continued to demonstrate their title credentials. It was at this stage that their title odds really began to shrink as punters realised that Conte was making his mark a lot earlier than expected.
A 5-0 drubbing of Everton had the home supporters salivating, and this was probably their best exhibition of football all season. Their willingness to keep their foot on the jugular of a beleaguered Toffees team was impressive, and Hazard proved to be unplayable as the visitors unwisely tried to match their opponents in terms of formation.
However, the most recent Chelsea matches haven’t been plain sailing for the London side, who have had to find a way to win against determined teams. Sooner or later, opposition sides were going to start making life harder for Conte’s team, and the 1-0 triumph at the Riverside can be filed in the hard-fought category.
Similarly, the 2-1 win against Tottenham finally saw a goal conceded, and Conte will have been pleased that his side showed the requisite character to land three points after a ferocious start from Spurs had put them into the lead.
The advantage of no European football
Right now, there are probably four teams who can win the Premier League title. We’re going to exclude Tottenham on the grounds that they already have ground to make up, while Manchester United simply don’t look good enough to make an impact at the top of the table this term.
This leaves Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Arsenal. The latter pair will be going through to the last 16 of the Champions League, and it’s clear that European campaigns can take their toll on domestic matters.
While Pep Guardiola and Arsène Wenger will rotate their squads and try to manage things as well as possible, there is no substitute for being able to prepare fully for each Premier League match. Most of the time, Antonio Conte and Jürgen Klopp will have a full seven days to get ready for the next game.
Leicester City illustrated last season that a clear schedule where the Premier League is a chief focus can be massively advantageous, with fitness levels also higher due to fewer games being played. Extra games can also lead to injuries being sustained for the teams involved in European competition.
Chelsea’s squad seems well-equipped for December
December is clearly an important month for any team challenging for the Premier League title, and Chelsea are no different. A trip to Manchester City is followed by games against Sunderland, Crystal Palace, Bournemouth and Stoke City.
Irrespective of how Chelsea fare at the Etihad Stadium, it would appear that Conte’s men have a favourable set of fixtures for the remainder of the month, with the Italian likely to be pinpointing at least ten points from that quartet of games.
When the Blues recently faced Tottenham, they had a good-looking bench that included MichyBatshuayi. The Belgian was a £33million signing last summer, and it had been thought that he could quickly become the number one striker at Stamford Bridge, with Diego Costa having had a poor campaign previously.
However, the 23-year-old has largely been limited to a series of substitute appearances, with Oscar and Willian also having to bide their time. The latter of these was linked with a move to Manchester United last summer, though both Brazilian players are waiting in the wings at Stamford Bridge for their chance to shine.
The future of Fàbregas is unclear. The Spaniard arrived to a fanfare at Chelsea, though his form actually started to dip during the title-winning campaign of 2014/15, and last season was especially lousy for a player who might seek pastures new. Strange to think that the midfielder was once regarded as a star Premier League talent.
However, there is cover for the festive schedule and the months of matches that follow this. Chelsea are already out of the EFL Cup, and the FA Cup campaign will feature plenty of young players, even if Conte would like to win every competition in which his team are involved.
Will City or Liverpool stand in Chelsea’s way?
Manchester City were installed as warm favourites to win the Premier League title after it had been confirmed that Pep Guardiola would become the new manager at the Etihad Stadium.
City remain favourites at this juncture in the season, though they haven’t been especially impressive, especially from a defensive pointofview, and there haven’t been many Premier League matches where you feel that this team is much better than the one managed by Manuel Pellegrini last term.
Sergio Agüero continues to fire in the goals, and Kevin De Bruyne is clearly one of the most talented midfielders in Europe, though Guardiola has the obvious fixation with the Champions League, and the injury problems of Vincent Kompany deprives City of a rock in central defence.
Then there is Liverpool, a team who outplayed the Blues when the sides met earlier in the season. The Reds have been nearly-men on several occasions, though Jürgen Klopp has brought a new lease of life and they also have the pure focus that comes with not playing in Europe.