Michy Batshuayi’s strike last Friday night saw Chelsea crowned Premier League champions for the second time in three seasons. It was a dramatic finish to a scrappy game from perhaps the unlikeliest of heroes, and at the final whistle, in the midst of the onrush of raw emotion- both on the pitch and in my living room- I thought back to how this team got here. All remnants of the great double-winning Chelsea side of 2010 under Carlo Ancelotti were well and truly gone. The titans of that team, characterized by its industrious midfield and its three-pronged, murderous attack, had since moved abroad or simply retired. In fact, I believe it’s only John Terry who remains from that team (the 09/10 side being the one that is most vivid in my memory, and will perhaps always be my personal favorite), and he has largely served as a Ben Kenobi-style mentor figure in the dressing room. It was strange seeing Frank Lampard (in my opinion, our greatest ever player) in the studio as a pundit, and I realized this is well and truly a new outfit. The previous backbone of the Blues that consisted of Cech, Terry, Lampard and Drogba has been replaced by the likes of Kante, Costa, and above all Hazard- who I consider to be the face of this franchise over the last few years.
When we were crowned champions in 2015, it was generally agreed by journalists and fans alike that this was down to three key acquisitions by then-manager Jose Mourinho: Diego Costa, Cesc Fabregas, and Nemanja Matic. With Costa providing that instinctual finishing not seen since the days of Drogba and Anelka in that aforementioned Ancelotti juggernaut of 2010, and with Fab and Matic providing a much needed change to a midfield in turmoil since the autumn of that double-winning year, it seemed like a perfect fit. Pundits were commenting that this Chelsea team would be around for a long time, and praised the “balance” brought by these three acquisitions. It was also the year Hazard had his best season for Chelsea, showing the world that despite the success of these newcomers, this was very much still his team. He was the first name fans would look for on the teamsheets, and dazzling the Bridge and the league alike, it was he who took home the coveted awards of PFA Player of the Year and the Football Writers Association Footballer of the Year, establishing himself as the finest player in the country.
Then, when it seemed as though a dynasty was about to take shape, Chelsea had one of the greatest- perhaps the greatest- self-destruction of any Premier League champion in their follow-up season. After some uninspiring performances, needless drama involving the medical staff, and rumors of a locker room on the verge of mutiny, Jose Mourinho was sacked by Abramovich for a second time. All of our stars- with the exception of the inimitable Willian- were completely shot of confidence and out of form, and our once bright future all of a sudden looked bleak. We had failed to qualify for the Champions League and the two Manchester clubs, who had also suffered seasons which fell short of satisfying their respective fanbases, looked to be strengthening massively. And Tottenham, despite taking home the unwanted distinction of finishing third in a two-horse race, looked to have the best nucleus of any team in the league. When Conte was appointed the reaction I saw among Chelsea fans was one of satisfaction but not of excitement. There was no feeling among the fans or the journalists that Chelsea would be one of the favorites to win the league. Despite having kept all those players that had performed so well in our 2015 title-winning season, there was a concern that they had lost their magic. Costa looked like he needed counseling, Hazard seemed completely without confidence, Fabregas seemed to have lost the pace and grit necessary for midfield, Matic was a ghost on the field of play, and there were worrying signs of age in Cahill and Ivanovic.
So, without further ado, here are my reasons for why I think Chelsea won the title!
- The Switch to 3-4-3. This begins with the team’s early losses to Liverpool and Arsenal at the beginning of the season. Chelsea had started the season competently, but did not yet know how to get the best out of their players. The team was lacking that sense of identity and style, and after employing a flat back four, became very much exposed by the pace of Liverpool and Arsenal’s offense. Conte used these defeats to fuel Chelsea into a ruthless machine, one that became a tactical nightmare for opposing teams in the games to come. The 3-4-3 formation is one that I believe captures the zeitgeist of modern football, and is representative- perhaps even emblematic- of a more dynamic style of play. Over the past 15 years or so, the tactics of football have changed a lot, and they’ve changed fast. Hardly anyone uses a 4-4-2 formation anymore, which I remember as a kid being the absolute boilerplate of soccer strategy. What we have been seeing in recent years is the trend of old footballing positions being deconstructed. Players are being asked to do jobs not typical of their position, which has resulted in these positions becoming blurred. This is most true for the fullback role, in which those players are now expected to have excellent ball-skills and stamina levels to rival that of midfielders. What made Chelsea a tactical nightmare this season was the use of its wingbacks, who were essentially playing two positions. They formed part of a five-man defense when in off-ball possessions and acted as the primary wingers when going forward. This made Chelsea difficult to mark and equally difficult to exploit.
- Clinical finishing. As a Chelsea fan, my complaint for what might be called the Interim Years (2010 being the last championship of the old guard, and 2015 ushering in the new-look Chelsea) was that, whilst we dominated possession, we had little spark going forward. Our attack in that time lacked creativity and incisiveness, and we tended to bulldoze our way through games. Our 2012 Champions League Trophy seemed to be won by willpower alone. It was after the historic 09/10 season that the signs of age were showing in our best shooter, Anelka, and our biggest clutch striker, Drogba. We tried to combat this by signing Fernando Torres for 50 million in January 2011, but it was too late- his best years were behind him, and he was ruined by injuries and a complete lack of self-confidence. It was Jose Mourinho’s signing of Diego Costa that brought us the consistent and cut-throat finishing not seen since the glory days of Didier Drogba. After having a down year last season, Costa has very much returned to the form he displayed in 2015 in his first season at Chelsea. This year he has, at the time of writing, scored 20 Premier League goals. It is often said that titles are won at tough away games to mid-table teams. This is often true, I find, as such teams are becoming increasingly emboldened in their approach to playing the super teams in recent years. But performances this season such as their 3-0 win away to Everton, 2-1 win at Stoke, and 3-1 win at Bournemouth are demonstrative of Chelsea’s ability to grind out results against tough, motivated defenses. The true mark of a championship team is, I would contend, its ability to score even when it is not playing at optimal exuberance.
- N’Golo Kante. Perhaps part of the reason this Chelsea team was not receiving too much hype in the preseason was its relative lack of spending in comparison to the Manchester clubs. But while their transfer business was not as flashy, it was perhaps more shrewd. Manchester United spent 90 million on Paul Pogba, but Chelsea- in a quieter move- got a far better player for only a third of the price. That player was N’Golo Kante, who has now won back to back league titles with two different clubs. I noticed when watching Euro 2016 how Kante was keeping Pogba out of the French side with his unparalleled defensive talents. He is not flashy; his worth is in his raw effectiveness. He rarely shoots the ball, but he runs with the heart of a leopard. Despite not being very tall, he is able to almost wrap his legs around the opposing player and steal the ball. There is no doubt in my mind, as a fan, that he is our MVP. Clearly, the rest of the league agrees, as he was recently awarded the PFA Player of the Year award and the FWA Footballer of the Year award, much as Hazard had done 2 years ago.
- Getting the best out of players’ potential. This, in many ways, is Conte’s biggest achievement this season. I felt for sure that Victor Moses would never play for Chelsea again after spending several years as a wandering mercenary for the Premier League’s mid table clubs. But Conte surprised everyone by not only bringing him back into the squad, but by making him a key part of the team’s success this season. Presently, Moses has started 28 of the team’s 36 games played. He is even a dark horse for Chelsea’s Player of the Year. He has been that good. Conte has had him playing the best football of his career this season, and he, along with new signing Marcos Alonso, has showcased his talents as both a defender and an attacker. It is a point that often comes up in basketball, but seldom in football, when deciding on MVP’s, that the best player ought to be both skilled at defense and offense. Whilst football obviously is very different insofar as the more rigid nature of its formations and positions, I still think that it is worth mentioning that Moses is much more versatile than either Hazard or Kante when it comes to performing at both ends of the pitch. Pedro is another player that, under Conte’s guidance, has gone from being a competent substitute to a lethal weapon, one that can shoot and dribble, and do so in the big games. Matic and Fabregas are two more players that have improved their game since last year, notching 18 assists between the two of them. Lastly, a word must be spared for David Luiz, who, although being a summer signing, is still someone who has been seemingly resurrected by Conte’s influence. No one ever doubted Luiz’s talent- in fact he is pretty much the perfect combination of height, strength and speed- but rather, his decision making. This season he has flourished in a defensive scheme that seems tailor-made for him. He has been reliable and disciplined, and deserves all the praise he is receiving for his career renaissance. His improvement is reflected in his being selected for the PFA Team of the Year; no small feat in a season that has seen great defensive performances from the likes of Alderweireld and Virgil van Dijk.
- Balance. Chelsea have been firing on all cylinders this season, but it is not because that 2015 team praised for its balance has been restored. The players are more or less the same, but the team is completely different. The Chelsea of 14/15 was one characterized by an absolutely suffocating defensive back four of Azpilicueta, Cahill, Terry and Ivanovic, one that at the time was talked about as being potentially one of, if not the, greatest defense in Premier League history. This year the defense has been effective too, but for entirely different reasons. Instead of a flat back four we have seen a very mobile defensive unit, one in which the wings are guarded by Alonso and Moses, the strikers marked by Cahill and Azpilicueta, and with David Luiz acting as a sweeper for whomever breaks through. It has proven so effective that I have seen other teams such as Tottenham, Arsenal and Man City at various times try out the 3-4-3 scheme for themselves. The Chelsea of this year has been better equipped to deal with pace than the 14/15 outfit, but less strong in defending more direct approaches to football. I would argue that this Chelsea has been more creative in attack, and slightly better at breaking down defenses than Mourinho’s title-winning team. Hazard in particular has been enjoying playing off of Diego Costa as our team’s primary offensive conduit, in a role which does not require him wasting energy tracking back. I have noticed that it is often Costa who goes back to give a hand when defending, whilst Hazard is left up front. It is no surprise then, that Chelsea’s success is due in no small part to its counter-attacking potential, with a fast-moving, dynamic defense able to quickly distribute the ball to players such as Hazard and Pedro. The best example of the team’s balance this year was its 5-0 dismantling of Everton in November, a result which- at the time- was lauded by BBC commentator John Motson as being “The best 90 minute performance I have ever seen in the Premier League”. Whether or not that is true is of course subject to personal opinion, but his saying that is nonetheless reflective of the team’s hard work in every area of the pitch.