Since arriving on these shores Antonio Conte has been heralded for his use of the 3-4-3 system and his commitment to coaching the players at his disposal, instead of going out and splashing the cash on a supposed solution. And rightly so. The Italian has implemented the back three better than any other manager so far this season. Just take a look at how the likes of Manchester City and Everton have struggled to find the right balance at times.
The former Juventus gaffer has also coaxed incredible performances out of lesser lights such as Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses in particular over the last four months, showing his incredible ability on the training field. Conte has taken a defence that conceded more goals than Swansea, West Brom, Watford and Crystal Palace last term and made them one of the most formidable in the division. And all that with the addition of a player, in David Luiz, who was considered a liability and a clueless acquisiton.
Throw in the fact he has turned Diego Costa into the brutal, bludgeoning, goalscoring bastard he once was, while returning Eden Hazard to his previously godlike status and rediscovering the Pedro that seemed to have been lost on his flight over from Barcelona, and he is doing OK.
Nevertheless, despite all this great tactical work and his endeavors at Cobham, that is not what is so great about this current Chelsea side. Conte’s greatest achievement, and something you can’t help but think he himself is most proud of, is the mentality he has instilled within his squad.
Last Saturday at the Etihad, Conte was found out by Pep Guardiola. There is no way around that. For the second 20 or so minutes of the first half and the beginning of the second his Chelsea side were played off the pitch. They couldn’t handle the likes of Silva and De Bruyne, who were finding pockets of space where other teams have struggled. Man City got the ball wide and neutralised the Blues’ width, making their marauding fullbacks almost irrelevant, while Guardiola instructed his players to go longer, bypassing the influential Chelsea midfield.
However, it was here, as we did against Spurs, that we saw the true great quality of this Chelsea outfit. They did not panic, they stuck to their task like the relentless well-oiled machine they have become under their Italian manager. Twice this term they have been on the canvas with the count at nine but they have got up to win.
The players have so much faith in what they are trying to do and such a large degree of belief in what their manager wants from them that they never look flustered. That may come from the slight element of fear that Conte clearly instills in his players. The thought of losing doesn’t bear thinking about.
There is never that feeling of impending doom that spreads throughout many teams when they concede a goal or go behind though. There’s a calmness and a preciseness with which they simply plug away, knowing that eventually through sheer persistence, belief and class they will emerge as victors.
That is exactly what happened in the north-west last week. Despite City piling on the pressure and missing golden opportunities (I’m looking at you Kevin de Bruyne) Chelsea didn’t crumble. They backed their own quality and resilience and exploited the opposition on the break with brutal efficiency.
No team has gained more points from a losing position than the west Londoners this season. They have racked up 10 points when they have been on the ropes already, that is two more than they managed in 38 matches last term. That stat is all the more sensational when you consider they didn’t concede a goal for seven games before facing Tottenham two weeks ago, so in turn were never behind.
Chelsea will face a task of a different scale when they square-up to an in-form West Brom on Sunday lunchtime. They will be asked different questions by the Baggies than those posed by City. Tony Pulis’ team will get the ball wide and bombard the Blues box at every opportunity in a bid to rattle the Stamford Bridge dwellers. However, they won’t change their style. If the hosts do fall behind, they will stick to their guns and unite behind their manager’s ethos, and the chances are they will probably come out on top.
That resilience comes from the manager. Conte has emerged as a brazen, unforgiving ball of energy that players have identified with immediately. Talk of how his change in formation has changed Chelsea’s fortunes is valid but the way he has transformed their mentality is equally, if not more significant.