“I hope there is a small flame flickering that can eventually grow into a blazing inferno.” Those were Antonio Conte’s words at his first press conference as Chelsea manager. The Italian had just resumed after guiding a stout Italy side to the Quarter-Finals of the European Championships in France.
The passionate Italian was expected to get the best out of a Chelsea side that finished the previous season in 10th place, after an embarrassing title defense.
The season commenced with a couple of unconvincing displays in August, with the win over Burnley the only noteworthy showing. In September though, came the moments that were to change the whole landscape of things, shake the foundations of the league and change the narrative.
The meek displays against Liverpool at Stamford Bridge and particularly the abject showing against Arsenal at the Emirates were to prove a catalyst for what was to come.
“We are only a good team on paper” – was Conte’s damning verdict after the 3-0 loss. He had seen enough and decided to do things his way. He introduced a three-man-backline away at Hull City and Chelsea never looked back.
13 straight league wins followed – a club record – and some of the performances were nothing short of breathtaking. The 4-0 hammering of Manchester United led by former manager, Jose Mourinho, the exhilarating 5-0 win against Everton and the 3-1 victory at Manchester City, are just some of the many results that spiked the confidence of the Chelsea players and brought joy to Abramovich once again.
Conte’s hard work, passion and intense style were clearly evident to see, and the plaudits predictably started pouring in. The bond he built with the fans and the players was noticeable as well. Hugs for each player after every win, with the fans chanting “Antonio… Antonio” became a recurring theme all season.
The blip away at Tottenham Hotspur – the end to their 13 game winning run – threatened to derail their onslaught, but it was just that, a blip. The Diego Costa tantrum-throwing episode was also well handled by the former Italy manager.
The switch of tactic to the 3-4-3 was a catalyst to this title success, and every player played a part in the win. Thibaut Courtois went from much maligned shot-stopper to being top class when called upon.
Cesar Azpilicueta was an epitome of consistency. David Luiz was transformed from the weakling “controlled by a 10-year-old in the crowd on a PlayStation”, to a vital cog in the back three. Gary Cahill silenced his critics by showing some solid displays and leadership skills at the left side of the back-line.
Victor Moses went from perennial loanee to archetypal wing-back, playing so well in a position previously unknown to him. Marcos Alonso made his doubters eat humble pie with his oft-consistent displays, even turning up with some rear goals. The duo of Nemanja Matic and N’Golo Kante were the perfect shield for the defence.
The Frenchman was a majestic presence in midfield and his athleticism helped in covering every blade of grass as he churned out performances right out of the top drawer. Being voted PFA Player of the Year and FWA Player of the Year was proof of the former Leicester City player’s consistency.
The triumvirate of Pedro, Hazard and Costa were absolutely terrific. Pedro was back to his best following a difficult first season in England. Eden Hazard returned to being top class again, consistently slaloming his way through players with unerring ease and the buccaneering brawny Diego Costa returned to his imperious best also – bar his dip around the winter.
The importance of Cesc Fabregas and Willian in the title charge shouldn’t be understated. The former was an epitome of class throughout and delivered when called upon while the latter overcame personal grief to better his goals return in the league from the previous season.
Also not leaving John Terry out. The departing captain wasn’t always on the pitch, but was a supportive presence off it and his teammates winning the league is a perfect send forth.
Many point to a few flaws in Conte’s system, and whilst those claims may be genuine, they needn’t worry about that in the present. Now is the time to feel ten feet tall.
Chelsea have been unstoppable throughout the campaign, and even when the losses to Crystal Palace and Manchester United threatened to throw a spanner in the works to their title bid, they never chocked under pressure but ultimately showed enough consistency to see off the competition, the greatest hallmark of champions.
Having been crowned champions with the 1-0 victory at West Bromwich Albion, Chelsea are on course to accruing 93 points – the highest of any champion in this decade – should they win their final two games against Watford and Sunderland. They could yet claim the prized double – by winning the FA Cup against Arsenal – to cap off a truly remarkable season.
Antonio Conte – the first manager to win the Premier League using a back three – deserves credit for being brave with his tactical switch, the players too, for buying into his ideas. The affable Italian, in just his first season in English football has guided the club back to where it wants to be.
Blue, is undoubtedly and emphatically the colour!
photo source: Zimbio.com