The Italian mastermind’s defensive shake-up has Chelsea looking in the face of Premier League glory yet again.
Antonio Conte is building something special at Chelsea. A club left battered and bruised by the tumultuous turns of the (second) Jose Mourinho era has been picked up, dusted off, and thrust into first place by the Italian, albeit after some brief early struggles.
Those struggles, however, can be attributed to the slow process of building a trustworthy defense. John Terry and Gary Cahill constituted the center back pairing for the London team’s first four Premier League games, with Cesar Azpilicueta at left back and Branislav Ivanovic on the right — the same back four that dissolved Premier League attacks just two years ago when Mourinho marched them to the league title.
Although it was a loss, new (kind of) signing David Luiz entered the fray in the fifth match in place of Terry, and that began to change things, but oddly for the worse. A 2-1 loss to a dominant Liverpool side and a 3-0 dismantling at Arsenal saw Chelsea implode. Conte, one of the premier manager coups of the summer, alongside Pep Guardiola at Manchester City and Jose Mourinho at Manchester United, seemed to be without an answer.
At that point, Chelsea, sitting in eighth place, traveled to Hull City. Though Hull are not a top Premier League team, this was where Conte and his club blossomed into a real force in England’s top tier. Against Hull, Conte implemented a three-man defensive line, much like he used to do with Juventus and the Italian national team. Luiz, Cahill, and Azpilicueta took up the roles, with a revitalized Victor Moses and new boy Marcos Alonso deployed as wingbacks on the right and left sides, respectively.
Chelsea are now unbeaten in the league since implementing the new system, and have not allowed a single goal.
Since switching to 3-4-3 on 1st of October, Chelsea haven’t committed a single defensive error in the Premier League.— Squawka Football (@Squawka) November 21, 2016
Faultless displays. pic.twitter.com/oLBITTVwcm
Conte’s side has won six straight in the Premier League, including a 4-0 demolition of Mourinho’s United as well as a 5-0 thrashing of Everton. Rejuvenated star forwards Eden Hazard and Diego Costa are doing their jobs, as are midfield engines N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic, but so much of it comes down to the staggering defense Conte is now using to baffle the competition.
Take, for example, Chelsea’s victory over Everton. The Toffees have a potent attack led by Romelu Lukaku with Ross Barkley pulling the strings behind him. Everton had just one shot on frame from substitute Kevin Mirallas. Chelsea’s back three stifled them, while their wingbacks were still able to roam free. Moses hit the post once and Alonso even got himself a goal, despite their slightly reserved wide roles.
26 - Chelsea have allowed fewer shots on target against them than any other team in the @PremierLeague. Threesome.— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) November 21, 2016
In that match, each defender completed over 90 percent of their passes. Azpilicueta won four aerial duels, despite facing the imposing 6‘3” Lukaku. Cahill had five tackles, while Luiz, the ball-playing back of the bunch, completed two dribbles as part of his well-documented desire to push forward from the back.
The Everton match is just one example of how Chelsea’s back three has changed everything. In the loss to Arsenal before the switch, none of Luiz, Cahill, Azpilicueta, and Ivanovic completed more than 89 percent of their passes. Cahill had an error leading to a goal, and Luiz completed no dribbles. Each new role has provided an opportunity for the Chelsea defenders to do what they do best in a back three.
Each player has similar success passing the ball over the course of the year, but it is clear which areas they excel in. The new defensive system from Conte allows each to take on a role where they can excel without exposing their teammates.
As a team, this new setup has drastically changed their fortunes for the better. Chelsea not only lead the Premier League in wins with nine, but have the most clean sheets with seven. Any uncertainties about their new manager have been washed away thanks to the implementation of a highly successful system.
Conte’s next two matches are against Tottenham and Manchester City, which will be the ultimate test for that new system, with Harry Kane and Sergio Aguero set to fire on all cylinders. Should Conte’s men continue their brick-wall-like form, while Costa and Hazard continue their stellar play, there is no reason Chelsea will relinquish first place again this season.
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