Antonio Conte has completely transformed Chelsea since taking charge in the summer. Saturday’s 1-0 win over Crystal Palace took the Blues nine points clear at the top of the Premier League.
The contrast with last season could not be starker. Chelsea have now won 11 league games on the bounce, equalling a club record, and are just three shy of Arsenal’s all-time Premier League high of 14.
Almost exactly a year ago on 17th December 2015, the football club was in total disarray. Manager, José Mourinho, was sacked with Chelsea 16th in the Premier League table. After becoming champions in May that year, they had lost a remarkable 9 out of 16 games.
So how has Conte turned things around in such a short space of time?
Three at the back
Conte’s decision to play with a back three has proved inspired. It was a tactic he employed successfully with Italy at Euro 2016, and many were expecting to see the same formation at Chelsea. It wasn’t until going 3-0 down at Arsenal before half-time that Conte made the switch.
Since then, Chelsea have won 11 straight league games and conceded only two goals. Gary Cahill has recovered from his poor start to the season, David Luiz has been excellent since his return from PSG, and César Azpilicueta has been rewarded for his outstanding consistency with a new contract. The wing-backs of Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso have also excelled. They have provided support in attack, while performing their defensive duties.
Conte’s system is unfamiliar to English football, and fellow Premier League sides are looking short of answers. After Saturday’s defeat, Crystal Palace manager, Alan Pardew, admitted that Chelsea gave his team nothing.
Star players return to form
Diego Costa and Eden Hazard have returned to their sparkling best since Conte took charge. Costa is the league’s top scorer with 13 goals – more than he managed all of last season (12). Hazard has netted eight times from an advanced midfield position, whereas he failed to score at all until late April in the previous campaign.
Both Costa and Hazard were accused of letting Mourinho down at the start of last season. They had starred in the 2014/15 campaign, with Hazard being named the Pfa Player of the Year as the title came to Stamford Bridge. But both looked disinterested the following year, which ultimately contributed to Mourinho’s sacking.
Conte has revitalised the pair. Costa has bullied defences in powerful displays, notably against Manchester City during November’s vital 3-1 win. Hazard has, meanwhile, terrorised the opposition with his speed and creativity.
Successful transfer window
As well as overseeing an improvement from existing players, Conte has added to Chelsea’s squad wisely. The Italian only arrived at Stamford Bridge in July after managing his native Italy at Euro 2016, but that didn’t stop him from enjoying a successful transfer window.
Eyebrows were raised when defenders Luiz and Alonso were signed for a combined £50 million. However, both have slotted seamlessly into Conte’s new system.
N’Golo Kante has also added energy to midfield. He has played every minute of Premier League football so far this season (a run which will end on Boxing Day after he picked up his fifth yellow card on Saturday). Chelsea’s midfield looked sluggish last season and was too often bypassed with ease. A look at Leicester City’s form since Kante’s transfer to Chelsea shows exactly what he brings to the team.
No European football
Conte is also benefitting from a lack of European football. Chelsea’s dismal 10th place finish last season has enabled them to focus solely on the Premier League this term. What’s more, Chelsea’s high-profile players appear determined to get back in the Champions League for next year. Their struggles under Mourinho appear to be Conte’s gain.