Well, October was good wasn’t it!
It’s hard to think of another example in recent history of a change in system yielding such remarkable and immediate results for a side in the Premier League. Those of us in Britain are well used to Sky Sports ramming down our throats, their taglines and clichés about just how unpredictable the English top flight can be. But even so, just over a month ago when Chelsea were handed their second consecutive resounding defeat to a title rival at the Emirates, no one would have imagined just how resounding and rapid their subsequent turnaround could have been.
The difference in the level of our performances is astonishing; there’s a freshness in amongst the team, not just with the new tactics, but with the form and the attitude of the players, several of whom seem to be approaching somewhere near their best form after far too long. I think it’s interesting to consider just how each member of the current (seemingly very well set) first XI, looks to have had their lot improved following Antonio Conte’s switch to a 3-4-3 shape. With one or two possible changes, the following players will almost certainly be our first team for the foreseeable future…
Thibaut Courtois – The Belgian didn’t concede a goal for club or country in six games over October! It’s been a shame to witness his level drop over the past 18 months, but he seems to be slowly regaining the form which he brought with him from his title winning season at Atletico. David Luiz holding a deep position in defence is allowing him to hold a slightly higher starting position and do his job more proactively again. The fact the backline has restricted our opponents to just eight shots on target in our last four matches has obviously helped too.
Cesar Azpilicueta – One of the more understated beneficiaries of this system change, I think the Spaniard has been fantastic. As the most advanced of the back three, he’s done a great job stepping up to support Kante in midfield, as well as providing excellent cover for both Victor Moses and Luiz. He still occasionally gets caught too narrow when we’re trying to switch the play but I think he’s been, and will continue to be our most important defensive player this year.
David Luiz – The last four games have probably been the most enjoyably uneventful of his Chelsea career. This role in the middle of the back three is probably his perfect position, with space to move into to play those incredible long passes, he has still been restricted by the simplicity of his role, to anchor the defence, remain our deepest player at virtually all times and man-mark the opposition centre forward. The Brazilian has reintegrated himself as a senior member of the side seamlessly.
Gary Cahill – A few weeks ago, Kurt Zouma couldn’t return fast enough, but now the Frenchman might find his place slightly harder to regain than he thought. Cahill may not flourish in the role (as a side centre half) to the same extent as Cesar, but his early understanding of the position seems promising. He provides cover for Luiz and Marcos Alonso very well, and with John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic seemingly out of the first team, he is arguably our key aerial threat from set pieces (with three goals already this season) – a longish run as our on-field captain might help his game also.
Victor Moses – Probably Antonio Conte’s most inspired piece of management so far, the right wing back role he has crafted for Moses suits the Nigerian to a tee. He might not quite have the talent to play as a wide forward for Chelsea but his athleticism, his aggressive, direct style and his selflessness make him a truly excellent a wing back. After what must have been a frustrating three years it’s nice to see such a likeable player thriving at the top level.
Marcos Alonso – The last minute nature of the Spaniard’s signing always threatened to undermine the intelligence of his acquisition. He isn’t an especially glamorous player, lacking the athleticism of Moses and the technical quality of Azpilicueta, but he has invariably done a good job so far. He never seems to get caught out of position, he is a strong header of the ball and a good passer. I think also it helps, in a system with wing-backs, to have a good balance of attributes. Alonso provides that by holding a deeper position than Moses to help make up a back four when defending the counter attack, but he does so whilst still providing support on the overlap for Eden Hazard in attack. If he continues to improve he could be one of the signings of the season (and a team of the year contender).
Nemanja Matic – Two years of playing alongside Cesc Fabregas and Mikel John Obi really haven’t helped the Serb’s career. It feels as though his deployment throughout this period has been a compromise and has limited his contributions to the team. Now, playing in what is probably his best position, alongside the even better N’Golo Kante, we’re starting to see again the qualities which make him (in my opinion) the archetypal Premier League midfielder. As well his obvious physical attributes, I think his ability to retain possession and thread key passes in tight areas is an asset which has been criminally underused for a long time – his assist for Hazard against Man Utd being a perfect example of what he offers in the final third.
N’Golo Kante – Described by Conte as the complete midfielder, it’s hard to think of player more important to their side and their system than the Frenchman is to Chelsea at the minute. The pure destroyer role he was given early on threatened to limit his contributions in the way we have seen Matic restricted for two years and it’s a relief to see Conte realise this mistake early on. The qualities he offers as a box to box midfielder are simply too great not to utilise. His budding partnership with Matic could become truly formidable.
Pedro Rodriguez – The only player currently in the team (along with Gary Cahill) possibly under threat long term, the Spaniard is good value for his place for the time being. I think ultimately, Conte might want to keep him protected as first reserve wing back (on both wings) and I think eventually he’ll want to re-introduce the more talented Willian back into the side, also. For now though, the aggressiveness and direct style of Pedro compared to his Brazilian teammate is working well. This is probably as well as he’s played since joining the club.
Eden Hazard – Having already beaten last year’s miserly tally of league goals, the Belgian just looks better with every game he plays. The freedom this system affords him to hold a higher and narrower position in attack is bringing out his very best form. And not only does he seem to be in his ideal position, but the arrangement of his teammates in support seem perfectly tailored to his game also. Supported by the runs from deep of Matic and Alonso on the overlap, and with Costa enough of a threat to occupy two defenders at any time, the ideal platform has been created for Hazard to show off the extent of his talent. Already in match-winning form, continued improvement could see him reach the season-winning form he enjoyed two years ago, before long.
Diego Costa – The Spaniard isn’t as good a finisher as Sergio Aguero, but otherwise, for my money is the best all round centre forward in the country. As well everything he offers off the ball, it’s impossible to think of a player in the league who can, to the same extent, carry a side and lift his teammates by the sheer force of his character and determination to win. At the moment, his form is such that even when he’s struggling to get involved in a game, he can be relied upon to produce quality when the ball is finally played into him. Working under Conte also seems to have made him calmer, more focused and more subtle in his approach to picking battles against his centre halves. I just hope he can continue to improve under the Italian, to the point that he can be convinced to stay at the club long term, build a legacy and join the ranks of Drogba, Greaves and Tambling. There isn’t a player in the country I swap him for at the moment.