After Leicester City’s miraculous title victory last season, the summer of 2016 signaled a serious change at the traditional footballing giants of England. The Foxes’ win was an embarrassment to them all, and they responded the only way they knew how – by splashing the cash.
Manchester City and United ruthlessly brought in world-class managers to complement their overblown transfers, while Klopp’s Liverpool and Pochettino’s Tottenham aimed to succeed with a full pre-season behind them. Even the normally static Wenger spent early on Granit Xhaka in a bid to bolster his ever-weakening midfield, while the reigning champions made a series of risky buys to bulk up their squad.
Meanwhile, over at Stamford Bridge, the humiliated champions decided to look at the big picture. Despite delivering an impressive title in 2014/15, Jose Mourinho’s return had not gone to plan. Having declared his intention to stay at Chelsea for a decade, Mourinho was sacked mere months after leading his team to the title. In his place, Chelsea had chosen to appoint Antonio Conte, who had already made a name for himself by leading Juventus to three consecutive titles - including an unbeaten season.
The Italian was given the basic goal of breaking back into the top four – no easy task considering that the quality of the league had not been higher since the heyday of the mid-noughties. However, despite a stuttering start, a 3-0 loss to Arsenal precipitated a tactical change that has powered Chelsea to the top of the league. In that time, they matched the Invincibles’ record of the 13 consecutive league wins while also creating a nine-point gap to second place Spurs.
Their dominance has been so absolute that most commentators have all but accepted them as this season's Champions elect with 14 games to go. However, an important question is yet to be answered – has Conte really enacted a revolution, or has he just reversed the dismal form that Chelsea encountered last season? In other words, is this team better Jose Mourinho’s dominant 2014/15 title winners?
Squad and Transfers
The summer of 2014 was a very busy time at Stamford Bridge. Mourinho’s first season back at Chelsea had culminated in a highly productive third place finish and an appearance in the Champions League semifinal – where the London side
In response, Mourinho returned to Spain in the summer to re-populate his side with some serious quality. In addition to the return of loanee Thibaut Courtois, the Portuguese manager also poached Diego Costa and Filipe Luis from Atletico Madrid. Most startlingly, he even managed to bring in Cesc Fabregas from Barcelona to Chelsea - much to the horror of Arsenal fans who themselves were waiting for their hero’s return.
The return of Didier Drogba from Galatasaray and the purchase of Loic Remy provided adequate firepower to replace the departing Demba Ba, Romelu Lukaku, and Samuel Eto’o. The sales of Fernando Torres, Andre Schurrle, Ryan Bertrand and Mark Schwarzer in January added to David Luiz’s departure in the summer.
Mourinho had bought himself a title-winning squad and decimated the deadwood dragging the club down. Kurt Zouma was to be the only successful youth promotion to the first team and Chelsea started the season as overwhelming
Meanwhile, last summer was a very different time for the Chelsea faithful. Although Conte brought in four first team players, only N’Golo Kante was considered to be a real upgrade on their first team. Marcos Alonso and Michy Batshuayi were seen as mere backups, while there were significant, if slightly unfair, doubts over the ability of the returning David Luiz.
Where Conte really succeeded in the transfer market was in getting rid of highly paid fringe players. Mohammed Salah, Papy
By sidelining John Terry and Ivanović, and Nathan Ake from his loan spell at Bournemouth, Conte has made a statement about the future of Chelsea’s backline. Despite becoming captain, it seems like Gary Cahill will be phased out next season, with the rise of players like Zouma, Ake and Andreas Christensen. This is particularly impressive considering the importance of these senior defenders during the previous Mourinho regime.
Overall, despite creating a transfer deficit with his smart sales, Conte’s lack signings for the first eleven meant that this season’s Chelsea squad were not as well rounded as Mourinho’s 2014/15 side. After all, the spine of his midfield and attack are still the same side built by the Portuguese manager. This was reflected in most pre-season predictions, as pundits prophesied that Conte’s Chelsea would do well to finish in the top four.
Despite this apparent lack of outright talent, Antonio Conte has fashioned a side in his own image – determined, ruthless and efficient. Chelsea started their 2016/17 campaign in an imbalanced 4-3-3 that failed to cover their defensive inadequacies, as well as blunted their attack. However, a humiliating 3-0 loss against Arsenal in September forced Conte into rethinking his tactics and switching to the three at the back that had worked wonders for him both at Juventus and with the Italian National side. Eventually, he came up with the 3-4-2-1 that
Conte famously used this formation during his time with Juventus in 2011-2014, where he created the now formidable
By creating a three-man backline, Conte has nullified Cahill’s lack of speed and occasional mistakes and created space for Luiz to play with the ball at his feet – a major part of how the Brazilian likes to play. With Alonso and Moses as wingbacks, Conte has given them a formation that utilizes their attacking capabilities without exposing their defensive shortcomings.
Up top, Hazard and Pedro (or Willian) can play with the freedom afforded to wingers that don’t need to hug the touchline. Their movement creates havoc for opposing defenders, and Costa is at his best amidst this chaos. Finally, with the defensive cover that the tireless Kante provides, Matic can occasionally join in attacks if Chelsea
Conspicuously absent from this tactic is the ubër-talented Fabregas. While he still has an important role to play against top-level
Compared to the tactical nuance that Conte has brought to the modern Chelsea side, Mourinho 4-2-3-1 of 2014/15 seems outdated. However, as stated above, he did have a superior squad to work with. As such, Mourinho just needed to choose the best formation to accommodate his best players – namely Costa, Oscar, Fabregas and Matic. However, this is not to say that Mourinho was happy with the bare minimum. After all, he did ship out the most talented player in his squad, Juan Mata, for the harder working Oscar in January 2014.
In fact, the theme of teamwork was
The only player granted complete freedom was Eden Hazard. Mourinho
While both managers have proved themselves to be master tacticians, there is one clear winner in this category. To make a back five of Alonso, Cahill, Luiz, Azpilicueta and Moses as effectively feared as they are today would be conclusive on its own, but once you throw in the evolution of Matic and the freedom of the introverted wingers, the victor is obvious. Despite owning a less impressive squad, Antonio Conte’s first XI is possibly more fearsome than that of Mourinho’s in 2014/15.
This is a more subjective category, but an important one nonetheless. The modern Chelsea have blown away their competition with their record-equaling 13-win streak, but have also shown glimpses of real expansiveness during that time. Their 4-0 demolition of Manchester United and the 3-0 dismantling of Leicester are proof of that.
However, despite their manager’s reputation, the Chelsea side in 2014/15 were no slouches themselves. They started their season with a 14-game unbeaten run in the league alone, including a 6-3 away victory against Everton. However, their best performances came in Europe, with a 5-0 away victory at Schalke and a 6-0 victory against Maribor at Stamford Bridge.
Luckily for us, there is a beautifully coincidental event that can help separate the two sides. Around the turn of the year, in both seasons, Chelsea traveled to White Hart Lane in fine form to take on their local rivals, Tottenham. Both times, they were sent back with their tails between their legs, having been at the end of deserved defeats.
Antonio Conte’s response has been to double down on his tactical decisions, which have led to improved performances such as the 3-0 victory over Arsenal recently. Mourinho, perhaps predictably, chose to shut down his team for his remainder of the season. After seeing half a season of flying football, the Chelsea faithful were treated to nervy one-goal victories that were reminiscent of the Portuguese’s first spell in charge.
Thus, despite the subjectivity of the category, it seems like Antonio Conte may have edged this round. His continued belief in not just playing winning football, but playing dominant football, is remarkable considering the individual talents of his squad. On the other hand, Mourinho’s pragmatism, while successful, does not make for compelling viewing to the neutral.
As stated above, Conte’s side has been absolutely magnificent in the league this season. To have the title all but wrapped up in mid-February is incredible, and hasn’t been seen since Sir Alex Ferguson’s last season at Manchester United. Chelsea
However, there is a caveat to this immense success. While all their title rivals have been fighting on at least two fronts since September, Chelsea
In direct contrast, Mourinho’s title winners of 2014/15 not only had European engagements but also played every round of the EFL Cup. It was to be their first tournament victory that season. Additionally, they do not compare shabbily to this season’s side in the league. While Conte’s team have 59 points from 24 matches with a goal difference of +34, Mourinho’s side had 56 points and a GD of +33
So, which is the better side?
While both sides won two sections each, there does seem to be an emerging leader. As impressive as Conte’s side have been, Mourinho had an objectively better squad that achieved more by February 2015. Even Conte’s victory in the tactical section is undermined by the fact that Mourinho didn’t have to perform tactical miracles because his side
However, there is one big positive for Conte. While Mourinho only achieved this level of success in his second season back at a team where he was already revered, the Italian has come to a new country and nearly matched that performance. The real comparison of the two Chelsea squads will come next season, once Antonio Conte has had time to mold the club in his image.