Five years ago, on a chilled Italian evening – European champions Chelsea faced Juventus in an epic encounter. It was a must-win game for both the sides in order to qualify for the knockout stages, while for Chelsea, it wasn’t just their qualification in line.
A defeat meant their Italian manager Roberto di Matteo could potentially lose his job just a season after winning the Champions League. The Blues would also become the first defending champions to exit from the group stage.
The stage was set and the spotlight was on the Chelsea manager. But as things panned out, it was rather the opportunity for the English media to memorize a new name, Antonio Conte – a man who turned around fortunes for the Old Ladies by inspiring them to their first title since the Calciopoli Scandal. A man who has a born winner.
Chelsea were shambolic, or perhaps Juventus were too good for them at the night. Conte’s men romped three past them unanswered.
Subsequently, Chelsea made an unwanted history while Antonio Conte outlined his tactical nuance to the rest of Europe.
Years later, Chelsea now managed by Antonio Conte, faced another Italian side, Roma. Ironically, the result was same, except it was Conte who was on a receiving end. Sometimes, you just can’t fault the footballing script-writer for its job.
Even then, it was impossible for Antonio Conte to receive the same fate as the other Italian. Conte inspired a shaken Chelsea squad from 2015-16 to win the title in one of the most dominant fashions in the history of the league.
Even if patience and Chelsea don’t come together, the Blues couldn’t wish for a better manager than the Italian.
Chelsea played with a 3-4-3 against Roma that night and were severely light in the midfield.
Roma dominated and excruciated them particularly in the second half. The three defenders pony tailing in a viral clip shows the mental state of the Chelsea defenders that night.
Perhaps, Antonio Conte got it wrong, or he was forced to stick with the 3-4-3 formation due to lack of options as a result of the unimpressive summer window.
WORK WORK WORK
We know what came next for the English champions. It was all Antonio Conte knew – work, work and work.
Antonio Conte works. He learns and evolves. 3-4-3 wasn’t working, mainly because of the adaptability (or lack of) of Cesc Fabregas. So, he adapted.
The Spaniard is a crucial player for Chelsea due to his creative intelligence, but despite the apparent talents he has, he isn’t as dynamic as other midfielders in the league. Give Cesc the ball and he will deliver – but it’s when the team is struggling to hold the ball when it becomes a problem.
Antonio Conte, meanwhile, was light years ahead of us to find a solution.
He knew he couldn’t stick to a system that worked before. Football, much like life, evolves with time – you need to be one step ahead of the rest to prepare yourself for the future. Otherwise, it doesn’t take a lot to undo months of hard work. After all, the world of football doesn’t have the memory of Dolphins.
That is effectively why he brought Tiemoue Bakayoko from AS Monaco.
Many will look to derail Chelsea and Conte for selling Nemanja Matic, but in hindsight, Bakayoko was a part of Conte’s evolution to his Chelsea era.
Bakayoko offered Conte what Matic didn’t – his dynamism in the midfield.
Conte’s familiarity with the system
Antonio Conte isn’t new to the 3-5-2 system. In fact, the majority of his success at Juventus revolved around the same system.
Conte deployed two energetic midfielders, Paul Pogba and Arturo Vidal in a similar outlook for Juventus while Andrea Pirlo picked passes from deep areas in midfield. Now, the trio of Kante, Fabregas and Bakayoko play similar roles at Chelsea with a few tweaks.
How Chelsea attack
Unsurprisingly, much of Chelsea’s offense runs through their best player, Eden Hazard.
He plays behind Morata in the Blues’ front two, but Conte also offers him the freedom to move anywhere he wants.
The Belgian tends to drop in midfield frequently with a motive to draw opposition midfielders onto him. Due to his brilliant holdup and dribbling skills, it’s not surprising how opposition players look to close him down quickly but it also offers several of his team-mates spaces behind the midfield line.
Tiemoue Bakayoko and Cesc Fabregas take advantage of the time and freedom available to create goal-scoring opportunities for the side.
Meanwhile, as it’s always said, good players don’t need to play for years to understand each other.
No other duo would be a more prominent example than the pair of Hazard and Morata.
The Spaniard links up brilliantly with the Little Magician, and their awareness of each other helps Chelsea maintain speed and fluidity in their attacking movements which create clear-cut opportunities for the side.
How Chelsea defend
Under Antonio Conte, Chelsea’s defensive duties start right from the opposition half.
The Blues’ forward duo of Hazard and Morata press the opposition defenders man-to-man while their wing-backs follow the same commands on the opposition full-backs.
But, Blues retort to a zonal press in their own half. When the opposition pushes forward from the wide areas, the midfielder on either side gets outside of his zone to cut the space and narrow the opposition play. Consequently, it creates a chain effect in their defensive shape with Kante covering from the central midfield while the third midfielder shifts more centrally.
Nevertheless, due to Chelsea’s narrow defensive play, there is a danger of the opposition switching the wings to exploit the space on the other side of the pitch.
But, because of Antonio Conte’s tactical knowledge and wisdom, Blues are wary of the weakness.
Only quick and incisive opponents with enough quality in their armour will be able to take advantage of the loophole when Chelsea stick perfectly to the system.
Will the Blues find same success?
Chelsea have shown they have enough quality on the side to beat the top teams with wins over Tottenham, Atletico Madrid and Manchester United this season.
However, because of the Blues’ dependence on specific individuals for the 3-5-2 system to work, injuries could play an active part in their success.
Blues lost two crucial games in the absence of N’Golo Kante, and it’s not even a complicated crossword puzzle.
The Frenchman plays a crucial role to break down opposition attack and get the best out of the more creative players in the side.
Likewise, Chelsea don’t have an able replacement for the likes of Alvaro Morata, Eden Hazard and Cesc Fabregas along with Marcos Alonso.
With Manchester City’s squad depth and dominance so far, it could be tough for Chelsea to defend the title.
Still, Blues will no doubt impress with their performances in the league as well as Champions League this season if they avoid any long layoffs regarding injuries.