Chelsea have returned to the imperious, dominant force the world witnessed two seasons ago, arguably as a result of the tremendously pivotal influence of one of the most highly-rated managers in Europe at this present moment, Antonio Conte.
With Conte’s appointment as Chelsea head coach announced on the 4 April 2016, both the club and the fans were able to witness the remarkable, unexpected success, that he delivered while managing an Italian national side who were deemed by the Italian press as one of the most uninspiring sides in the nation’s football history.
After finishing second in their group to Belgium, despite claiming a gutsy 2-0 victory over them, they caused a major upset in the round of 16, by beating what were the current European champions, Spain. Goals from Giorgio Chiellini and Graziano Pelle capped off a tactical masterclass from the Italians.
Not only had Conte won the hearts of football fans thanks to his extremely animated and entertaining touchline antics, but more importantly, his ability to draw out the best in a seemingly average player was evident to all. Players such as Emanuele Giaccherini and Graziano Pelle reached levels that were unimaginable to the media, and football critics all over the globe.
A definitive factor of Italy’s performances was the 3-4-3 formation, that would eventually, transform Chelsea’s season. Conte had always reiterated the importance of finding the “right balance” for his teams, and especially with Italy, with this specific system he had found just that.
The international fairy-tale ended with a heartbreaking penalty shootout loss to inevitably, the Germans, after a 1-1 draw. The most memorable moment, Simone Zaza’s comically appalling penalty, after the strangest of run-ups. Despite their Euro 2016 quarter-final exit, there was an element of pride that drifted around the Italian squad and staff. They had proved their whole country wrong.
A touching moment for Conte himself was when entering the post-match press conference, he received an overwhelming round of applause from the once doubting reporters. He had won his country over with his immense passion and spirit, backed up with some fantastic performances. With his Italian business concluded, Conte’s attention turned to west London. Chelsea beckoned.
“In Italy, I say the manager is like a tailor. You have to best dress the team.” A level of expectancy greeted the new head coach after his Italian miracle, and a stagnated Chelsea side, were in desperate need of being invigorated after the mid-season departure of Jose Mourinho, and the 10th place finish that was to follow. This was the worst ever defence of a league title. Once pre-season had been completed, Chelsea had made the acquisition of N’Golo Kante, the first of three and arguably the most pivotal signings of the summer. However, with the start of the season upon the Blues, it was time to turn their focus to the premier league.
West Ham were welcomed to the Bridge for the opening game of the season, and a surprise was that Conte had continued to pursue with four at the back, which many did not predict. What followed was a game which lacked creativity and spark, yet there seemed to be some character about Chelsea.
A Hazard penalty shortly after the break was cancelled out by a sweet strike from James Collins 13 minutes from time. With the game petering out to a draw, an edge of the box strike from Diego Costa sent both the fans and manager into ecstasy. Conte, with emotions getting the better of him, jumped into the crowd to celebrate, an act which began the blossoming relationship between the fans and the boss.
Amidst all the football, the shock re-signing of David Luiz and also Marcus Alonso, from Paris Saint-Germain and Fiorentina respectively. All was going well, but the incoming reality check was to be swift and brutal.
Back to back losses in the league to Liverpool (2-1 at home) and Arsenal (3-0 away) either side of an extra time victory against Leicester in the league cup brought the club right back down to Earth. Something needed to change. Fast.
3-4-3. “The right solution” in the words of Conte. The second half against Arsenal was the birth of the system for the club, and against Hull, the transformation of Chelsea into a “Conte” side began. With Victor Moses, the supposedly forgotten man, and Alonso, the unknown, in the wing-back roles, Cesar Azpiliqueta, Luiz, and Gary Cahill controlled the three centre-back positions and the ever reliable Thibaut Courtois in goal behind them.
The Majestic Kante and Nemanja Matic protected the defence in central midfield, and up top was the rotation of Pedro and Willian, with the Continuity of Hazard and Costa. This new system sparked a dramatic revival, with 13 straight wins, most notably against Manchester City away and a 4-0 battering of the not so special one, Jose Mourinho’s United, that powered Chelsea to the top of the table. An out of character 2-0 defeat to Spurs at White Hart Lane ended the record-breaking run. However, unbeaten in 10 games was the response, as significant wins against Arsenal, West Ham, and more, with also a hard fought draw at Anfield in the midst of the run, have propelled Conte’s side to a 10 point lead, with a mouth-watering FA Cup semi-final against arch-rivals Tottenham on the horizon. Something did change and it did so at an alarmingly quick rate.
11 games to go. The countdown is well and truly on. The double is well and truly on. Conte’s magic has struck Chelsea, and the club has been under his spell ever since.