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How Antonio Conte has turned Chelsea into league leaders

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Amlan Majumdar

11/29/2016

While the arrival of Pep Guardiola and the return of Jose Mourinho had grabbed all the headlines initially, the league is now standing up and taking notice of this Italian who is proving why he was so highly revered back in his home.

“Lads, it’s time we stopped being shit.” - The concise and not-so-subtle message that Antonio Conte gave to the Juventus team on his first day in charge in Turin. Conte had inherited a Juventus squad which had finished seventh in consecutive seasons. Conte’s message reached the players and The Old Lady went on to win the league title without facing a single defeat in 38 games.

His half-time speech in the dressing room at the Emirates, where Chelsea were trailing 0-3 to a dominant Arsenal side, would not have been too dissimilar. They were unable to turn the game around in the next 45 minutes, but the change in attitude was striking. In fact, since Mesut Ozil scored that delightful goal on the counter in the 40th minute of that game, Chelsea would not concede a goal for the next 600 minutes of Premier League football. That run of 6 clean sheets was broken on Saturday by Christian Eriksen, but even then, they found enough resolve within themselves to come back from a goal down and win the match. It has been a transformation of mammoth proportions.

At the epicenter of this transformation has been a change in the formation. The 3-4-3 was like a switch that has reactivated some sleeping giants, evolved some Anakin Skywalkers into Darth Vaders, and released a footballer from the grips of a ‘10-year-old on PlayStation’.

The change in formation

Many had predicted this even before Conte had joined the Chelsea squad for the first day of training – the three-man defence was coming. However, many had also predicted how this will fail. There is not precedence of a team playing a three-man defence challenging for the title in the Premier League. Roberto Mancini at Manchester City and Louis van Gaal at Manchester United have tried and failed. Steve Bruce and Roberto Martinez have used it to gain some advantage over the bottom-half teams in their bid to evade the relegation battle, but very few have persisted with it.

Conte is not a stickler for formations though. He might have achieved success at Juventus with a three-man defence, but he is a manager who is comfortable in changing formations based on the resources available to him. He had changed to a flat back-four at Juventus when it was required, he used a completely different formation with the Italian national team, and even before that, he has used a variation of 4-2-4 with Siena. At the start of the season, he did not have defenders fit to field anything other than a back-four.

However, in the second half against Arsenal, Conte switched to a 3-5-2 formation, bringing on Marcos Alonso for Fabregas, which is the last time we have seen the Spaniard feature in a Chelsea blue this season, and there was no looking back.

Chelsea's average positioning from their 5-0 win over Everton © Four Four Two

In their next game against Hull City, Conte started with the 3-4-3 formation for the first time. Fabregas and Branislav Ivanovic were replaced by Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso, and Chelsea were all set to roll. Since that change, Chelsea have been on a seven-match winning run, and if they are able to navigate through Manchester City in their next game, this run might go on for a long time.

Hazard liberated; Pedro familiarized

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Hazard looked in decent form in the preseason, but that might have been mostly to impress new buyers rather than his new manager. The Belgian international has been far from his best last season, scoring just 6 goals in 43 appearances in all competitions. He had initially come under some criticism from Mourinho for his lack of defensive contribution, and it seemed like Hazard had overcompensated for that.

However, under Conte, Hazard is seemingly back to his best, or close to that at least. With summer-signing Marcos Alonso running the channel behind him, Hazard has been afforded the freedom to concentrate on the attack instead of running back to help out his defenders. In 13 league games, Hazard has made 54 successful dribbles, compared with 89 the whole of last season. He has already matched his total of 36 shots in the whole of 2015-16 against Tottenham on Saturday. Against that, Hazard has made just four tackles so far.

It is not only Hazard, though. The three-man attack at the top means Pedro is playing in a role he has played for most of his career at Barcelona – that's the reason why we are seeing the best of the Spaniard. He has already racked up three goals and five assists in just seven starts in the league. He provides tremendous movement behind the opponent’s defence, which, combined with Costa’s physicality and Hazard’s directness, is proving to be a lot to handle for the opponents.

Reinvention of Moses and Azpilicueta

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Not long back, Victor Moses was a forgotten man. Unfruitful loan spells at Liverpool, Stoke City, and West Ham United signaled he might be approaching the end of his career at Stamford Bridge. He had failed to persuade Mourinho of his worth in the squad. In fact, it was Chelsea's failure to sign Kalidou Koulibaly from Napoli in the summer, that has led to Moses being able to revive his career with Chelsea.

After Conte failed to sign the Napoli defender, Conte has had to use Cesar Azpilicueta in that role – which in turn meant that a place on the right wing-back was open for Moses to exploit. All of a sudden, the former Wigan star has been handed a decisive role in the team, and he is making the most of it.

Against Hull City, Moses started a Premier League game for Chelsea for the first time since May 2013 - a total of 1,239 days – and he looked equally comfortable while going forward or defending. In fact, he has looked natural in his role as the wing-back. With him and Alonso providing the width in attack, Hazard and Pedro can afford to stay narrow and support Costa more closely – at times, Chelsea are attacking with almost 5 players in the final third.

Along with reinventing Moses as a wingback, Conte has also successfully turned Cesar Azpilicueta into a right center-back. The Spaniard has played both as a left back and as a right back for the blues, but with John Terry on the wane, Ivanovic too undisciplined, and Kurt Zouma struggling with his fitness, Conte has figured out a new role of Azpilicueta. The 27-year-old's pace and positional sense complement the ball-playing ability of Luiz, and Cahill’s aerial strength. Azpilicueta’s presence on the right side of the pitch has also provided Moses with a lot of cover down the right wing.

In Chelsea’s last four matches, they have come up against Southampton’s 4-3-1-2, Everton’s 3-4-3, Middlesbrough’s 4-1-4-1, and Tottenham’s high pressing 4-2-3-1 – four different systems in terms of wide positions, and yet Chelsea always seem to have an advantage down the flanks.

Getting the best out of Luiz and Matic

David Luiz was a panic-buy, and there are no two ways about it. The mercurial Brazilian continues to divide opinion despite being one of the most expensive defenders in the game’s history. He is capable of producing both unimaginable brilliance and traumatizing moments of madness at the back – but for now, the latter seems to be under control. Playing in a three-man defence allows him to spend more time on the ball, and Conte is using his passing ability from the back. Luiz is almost playing as a deep-lying playmaker for the Blues when they have possession of the ball. His presence means Conte can afford to play two defensive-minded central midfielders and drop someone like Fabregas on the bench. The Italian manager has found a way to utilize the best of Luiz while providing cover for the worst. Another player who failed to convince Mourinho, and for that matter a lot of people, of his worth.

“I see David Luiz’s qualities in the middle, between [those of] Bonucci and Barzagli. He has good technique and good personality, like Bonucci, and likes to play football. Also, I find a good potential physically, like Barzagli’s,” Conte had said about Luiz. It is high praise indeed from a man who had built one of the best defenses in Europe at Juventus.

Another player who has received a new lease of life under Conte is Nemanja Matic. The midfielder was one of the most influential players during Chelsea’s title-winning campaign but faded away last season. In fact, Matic’s dip in form, alongside Hazard, is one of the biggest reasons why Chelsea had struggled, given the huge role he played in that team. With Fabregas failing to contribute defensively, Matic was often left at sea. But with Kante’s arrival this summer, Matic can play a more dynamic role. He can move a bit up the pitch and disrupt opponent’s play. Kante’s energy and Matic’s sturdiness is working well for Conte at the moment.

Soldering a disjointed dressing room

While the tactical change has grabbed most of the spotlight, perhaps Conte’s most important work came off the field. Mourinho had left a dressing room which was low on confidence, lacked the motivation of a team competing at the top, and with little or no evidence of the existence of team spirit. Conte has turned that dressing room, which was falling apart, into a cohesive unit. It almost seems like a family now.

The Italian has this ability to reach out to players. Being a devoted family man himself, Conte cherishes those values, and knows how to embed them in a squad. His 11-man strong Italian backroom staff has followed him to Chelsea. As Ian Chadband wrote a few days back, “He demands, shows and gets loyalty.”

He analysis every minute data that is provided to him by the fitness and medical staff, and the video analysts. He keeps track of every diet and believes that good food leads to better performance on the pitch. Conte is also a very emotional man, as can be seen by his reactions on the sidelines. He is not afraid to show his rage or his jubilation, and the players are getting used to it. He keeps instructing them from the sidelines for the whole 90 minutes of the game, even when they were 4-0 up against Manchester United with five minutes left on the clock. “You find yourself thinking ‘Hold on a second….Easy now, boss. Calm down.’ But that’s the way he is. That’s his personality,” Hazard said after the game.

He has won over the players, he has won over the fans, and now is leading the charge for Chelsea to the top of the Premier League. With Mourinho and Pep Guardiola’s arrival, a lot of the initial spotlight were on the duo, while the charismatic Jurgen Klopp took away the rest. But now, the league is standing up and taking notice of this Italian who is proving why he was so highly revered back in his home.

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