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Chelsea: From glory to misery- Where it went wrong for Conte

From becoming champions a year ago to not even qualifying for the Champions League, it all went downhill this season for Chelsea

CONTRIBUTOR
Feature 16 May 2018, 15:10 IST
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Crystal Palace v Chelsea - Premier League
Conte has had an underwhelming sophomore season at Chelsea

Rewind to 12th May 2017 - Chelsea manager Antonio Conte's words after winning the Premier League title in this first season were, "This is for my players, the title is a dream come true."

On that day, Michy Batshuayi flung himself towards the West Bromwich goal to score the goal which would clinch a first Premier League title for Antonio Conte.

What a season that was for Chelsea and Conte. At one point in September, following consecutive defeats by Liverpool and Arsenal, it all looked to be going downhill. It was then that Conte shifted to a three at the back formation for the next game against Hull City.

Ivanovic was relegated to the bench (his form was choppy anyway) and Chelsea moved to a back three with the ever-reliable Azpilicueta, Cahill and Luiz and with Moses and a relatively unknown Marcos Alonso as wingbacks.

Kante and Matic provided the solid midfield base and the defensive cover when the opposition was on the attack while Moses and Alonso were entrusted with the responsibility of effectively manning the wings both during attack and defence.

What followed was a phenomenal run of 13 consecutive victories which equalled Arsenal's record and left Chelsea 6 points clear of the field by New Year.

Notwithstanding a minor blip post new year, Chelsea still won the title comfortably. But there were enough warning signs that opposition teams were close to finding a solution to stop this winning machine. The victory margins towards the end of last season were much closer than at the beginning of the winning run.

Tactics

Though the formation had 3 at the back, this was no Guardiola team in attack. The essence of the formation was the 2 wingbacks who arguably had the most crucial role in the team. The 3 defenders at the back effectively meant that most teams which played with a single striker were neutralized.

Alonso and Moses were tasked with hugging the touchline, banging in crosses or tracking back with opposition wingers when they attacked.

Either Kante or Matic dropped into central defence while the other almost always pressed the opposition midfielders into making a mistake and initiated a counter attack for Chelsea.

In effect, this was a counter-attacking formation which involved deploying a high press on opposition midfielders with quick counter attacks mainly driven by linking wing-backs with Hazard/Willian upfront and Costa to score those crucial goals.

The striker

Southampton v Chelsea - Premier League
In happier times

What also contributed to the success of this formation was the accuracy of Chelsea's front men. When they sat back and pressed the opposition, they needed to finish off the opposition and if and when they got the big chances, they needed someone to be clinical in front of goal.

Costa did that extremely well last season and his goals single-handedly won Chelsea 15 points which were more than anyone else's in the league. He scored 20 goals in the entire season.

Trouble

It all started to go downhill when in January 2017, Costa seemed to have been the subject of an offer from China. Eventually, Costa was shipped out back to Atletico Madrid and Chelsea bought Alvaro Morata from Real Madrid for a decent sum of money.

On paper, Morata had excellent statistics for a striker playing off the bench at Juventus and Real Madrid. He had a much higher goals-per-minute ratio, conversion ratio and shot accuracy. At Chelsea, he was linking up with a manager who actually wanted him at his previous club Juventus also.

Theoretically, it was supposed to be a seamless transition. But Morata had never been through the rigours of a full season especially not in the hard grind of the Premier League. Things started out well for him and his hattrick at Stoke suggested he had settled down well to the rigours of the new club and the Aspi-Morata assist count began to inch up.

Then, his form dipped and he missed a few games because of injury. In hindsight, he might have already been carrying an injury. We might never know what the truth is, but the results at the club suffered.

Wingbacks

FBL-ENG-PR-CHELSEA-SOUTHAMPTON
Chelsea's stars from their
title winning
2016/17 campaign

Alonso and Moses were the surprise packages of the previous season. Given new important roles in the team and playing week in week out was something both players relished. The assists came flowing in and so did some miracle goals and free kicks. But they also had one crucial advantage last season- the element of surprise.

No one was prepared to defend against a 3-4-3 formation. Conte caught everyone in the league by surprise with his formation change and it took a while for anyone to even figure it out. It was one thing to watch videos and analyze and quite something else to actually defend on the pitch.

Hazard and Alonso making interchangeable runs was a defender's nightmare- do you mark Hazard and leave Alonso to make overlapping runs or sit back and wait for crosses and deal with the menacing Costa?

It took a while to figure this out but towards the end of last season, you could see teams tried to cut out the supply lines in midfield itself. Both Alonso and Moses, remarkable as their performance was last season, still weren't top class quality.

That might have explained why Chelsea were rumoured to be chasing Sandro almost till the end of the transfer window before the prohibitive pricing ensured the deal never went through.

Someone like Sandro with his additional pace and trickery might have found a way to link up better with Hazard or Willian. Chelsea bought Emerson and Zappecosta (no disrespect to these players) and they didn't settle in as well as expected.

Conte also wanted a backup striker to Morata and they did try for Llorente who finally went to Spurs. Conte felt Michy wasn't quite the finished product physically and some of his on-field performances did quite confirm this suspicion.

A physically imposing striker could have given Chelsea the option to change up their attacks with direct passes downfield to someone like Llorente who would hold the ball up until Hazard or Willian joined in for the attack. It was almost as if Conte knew exactly what would be the weak-links of this formation and wanted to fix this but could not.

With both the supply lines and the striker not performing as expected, 3-4-3 formation never really worked. It relied on intense midfield pressing to force the opposition into mistakes and then score on the counter-attack.

Teams realized if Chelsea sat back, they could just go on the offensive and with the defense also struggling a bit with Luiz injured (/benched), Cahill not up to his usual standards and Christensen in his first full season at the club, mistakes crept in almost always against opposition from the lower half of the table.

The 3-0 defeat to Bournemouth was an apt example of how they exploited Chelsea's weaknesses while sitting back and scored 3 against a hapless defence.

Stubbornness?

Did Conte err in not changing his approach given he didn't get the players he wanted? Maybe yes, but he had built his team over the past year and drilled into them the exact formation and whatever it was that needed to be done. It made more sense for the club to back him with the players he needed to keep up the momentum and incorporate a plan B into the team tactics.

Once Giroud came in, Chelsea's performances actually improved quite a bit and barring the inexplicable team selection at Huddersfield, they might have even scraped through to finish 4th.

Could he have tried something differently? Yes, Conte did try the false 9 approach with Hazard but he didn't like playing in that position. Did Chelsea err in selling Ake and loaning out Tammy when both players could have offered much-needed depth in wingback and striker position for Conte?

But Chelsea didn't suddenly become a team which will struggle to finish 5th after being champions. Chelsea and Conte were caught out tactically and failed to have a plan B but their plan A wasn't bad enough to finish 5th.

The players and Conte have to shoulder the blame for the debacle this season. The FA Cup final against Manchester United and Jose gives them a chance to redeem some pride and provide fans with something to cheer about at the end of the season.

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