In football you don’t always get what you want but sometimes you get what you need. A few weeks ago Chelsea looked as if they were in serious trouble having been turned over by Liverpool and Arsenal in the space of eight days. When Chelsea beat Leicester in between those two defeats we only talked about that result as a sign of how quickly Leicester had fallen.
Whispers went around that Roman Abramovich was feeling trigger happy again and that Antonio Conte was in the crosshairs. The rumours of Conte¹s imminent demise were no doubt greatly exaggerated but that’s the Premier League. Two bad results in eight days create rumours. Rumours create pressure. Pressure creates crises.
Yesterday Antonio Conte sorted out several crises in ninety minutes.
Before kick off Conte one of a group of Premier League managers being haunted by the ghost of a predecessor. That the predecessor was just up the touchline prowling like a grey wolf didn’t help. We were wondering if the next addition to Chelsea¹s backroom might not be an exorcist.
No need as it turned out.
Having parked the bus at Anfield last Monday night Manchester United gave and early and comical hint that they had actually left the bus where they parked it. The slapstick defending that let Pedro in for a goal after 29 seconds wasn’t Conte¹s worry. Next time he looked up the line the grey wolf looked old and sheepish.
Four months into their new jobs the Conte era has definitely begun at Chelsea. Conte has ended up, through circumstance, with a team that looks nothing like what Jose Mourinho left behind.
Meanwhile Manchester United are still just the backdrop for the long running soap opera that is Jose Mourinho.
Yesterday was the third game in succession that Antonio Conte has deployed the 3-4-3 formation that he used so well during his time at Juventus. At first glance Conte didn’t seem to have the resources to play 3-4-3 at Stamford Bridge but injuries and defeats have forced the formation upon him. The upshot has been three wins on the trot. Nine goals scored. No goals conceded.
Injuries to Fabregas, Terry and Ivanovich were probably the last thing Conte needed but with his professional life flashing in front of his eyes he had to think quickly. After Arsenal picked Chelsea clean Conte came up with a radical change of shape. Chelsea have gone from the frumpy mothballed outfit that Mourinho left behind to a slinky 3-4-3.
They suddenly have the confidence to change shape and be fluid. Results obviously help but the players look like they have bought into the new deal.
3-4-3 is what goes down in the team sheets that appear in the papers and on the TV screen before games but when Chelsea attack now Marcos Alonso becomes a winger and when they defend he is a left full back. He has more mobility than Ivanovic and he suits the new style. His versatility means that David Luiz can do the things he is good at, like moving the ball forward quickly and also be well covered when attempting the things he is not so at, like old fashioned defending.
Alonso has also freed Eden Hazard up on the left side of a front three. Hazard is part of the new theme at Chelsea right now. Players who were going backwards, getting sulky or being ignored during last season¹s doldrums are now looking revived. Diego Costa looks better with support around him. Victor Moses is like a brand new signing.
Chelsea are more likely to continue evolving than to go back to what they were. John Terry is just recovering from injury and yesterday he’ll have felt that sinking feeling that any player deep into his thirties gets when he sees that, in his absence, his team has smoothly switched to a formation that he possibly hasn’t got the mobility for.
Terry though is enough of a leader and a presence that he will see game time as injuries and suspensions kick in. Cesc Fabregas, on the other hand, looks as if he might be redundant.
I don¹t think that Chelsea fans were jumping up and down with joy when the transfer window closed at the end of August. The club’s main signings, Alonso, Kante and Luiz, didn¹t have the marquee value that the Bridge has become used to. They weren’t big statements or bait for those thinking of buying season tickets. They were additions.
They looked like solid enough business but Alonso had been at Bolton and Sunderland in previous incarnations and his success in Italy with Fiorentina had gone largely unnoticed. In Chelsea terms he looked like a signing who would deepen the squad without improving it greatly. His versatility though has suddenly become very useful.
Luiz had caused enough palpitations in his previous spell at Chelsea, while in France he didn’t look to have been playing at sufficiently high a level to have improved. The last vivid memory most people had of him after he left Chelsea was captaining Brazil on the night they got stuffed 7-1 by Germany in the 2014 World Cup. He’s back in business now.
And Kante? Of course one fine season at Leicester but his time at Boulogne and Caen hadn’t brought any international recognition. Not that Chelsea couldn’t afford it but £32 million seemed like a lot of money for a guy who might turn out to be a one hit wonder.
Yesterday though, as Conte exorcised the last echo of a Portuguese accent from his office, N’golo Kante gave a performance which suggested that he is the midfielder Manchester United should have bought this summer.
It wasn’t just that Kante was one of the dominant forces of the afternoon but his goal in the second half highlighted the fact that United are playing at the moment without any world class defensive presence in their midfield.
By contrast Chelsea¹s midfield is built around Matic and Kante, two pretty frightening guard dogs. Kante is settling in and looking more like the player he was at Leicester last season. He has a bit to go before he matches Claude Makelele in the role but even the fact that people are talking in terms of comparisons shows what a good investment he has been.
Kante¹s energy and defensive ability has allowed Matic to show another side to his game. He gets forward now when there is the space to do so. He is less worried about being the last man back before the ball moves into David Luiz’s orbit.
There was a bit of cynicism in the air when Kante moved to Chelsea. Players usually use their desire to play Champions League Football as an excuse to leave smaller clubs behind. Leicester were heading off on a Champions League adventure though and Kante was going to a club who would
have no European involvement this year.
No European involvement might end up the most positive part of Jose Mourinho’s legacy to Conte and his players. As Leicester had last year this Chelsea team has the time to recover between games and work hard on their formation. Manchester United are stuck in the Europa League, a competition that feels beneath them but which involves tough Champions League style preparation and travel for Thursday night fixtures.
That’s football, you don’t always get what you want. Sometime’s you get what you need and that’s Antonio Conte¹s blessing.
Jose Mourinho? He got the club that he wanted but does he know what he needs? That could be Manchester United’s curse.