It seems safe to say that after six consecutive victories, this Chelsea team are no longer ‘under the radar’, in this season’s Premier League title race. We might not be anybody’s favourites to lift the trophy but, even at this early stage, it would be small minded to deny the opportunity we have to stake a genuine and sustained challenge from our current position.
Our fixture list over the next two months looks extremely favourable, for being so generously spaced out as much as for being predominantly against the sides of a plainly lower quality. The absence of any European or League Cup football should make things easier as well, and could potentially reap dividends further down the line come April and May, with our final run in looking relatively straightforward as well.
First however, we face two serious tests of our new system against Tottenham and Man City, currently the best defence and attack in the Premier League respectively, as well as being the two of the three hardest pressing sides in the division. Conte’s 3-4-3 has beaten a fair variety of formations over the past few weeks, but it has yet to have been challenged as seriously as it surely will be in the next 10 days. It feels as though these games are to serve as an acid test, of whether this is a league winning side and system, or just the best that the Italian can make of a talented but limited bunch.
Looking specifically at Spurs, there probably isn’t a more difficult opponent to weigh up than Mauricio Pochettino’s side at the moment. Since the October international break (and possibly even before) they haven’t played particularly well, although they’ve managed to consistently pick up good results, remaining the only undefeated side in the division. The fact that they haven’t won convincingly for so long however, coupled with their consistently poor form in the Champions League (just four points from five winnable games), means they will surely start on Saturday as favourites to lose the game.
There are at least three reasons why this should be an interesting contest, and I think one which will ultimately favour ourselves…
1) Spurs haven’t looked recently like the strong attacking outfit they were last season, but even if Kane, Eriksen and co. should recover some form in this match, they still don’t look like a side well suited to break down our 3-4-3 formation. As Harry Redknapp lamented on BT Sport following his old club’s elimination from Europe, the only real pace and width in the starting XI comes from the full-backs, with the majority of Spurs’ best attacking players all preferring to operate centrally. Needless to say they will have to raise their individual games substantially if they’re to break down the brick of wall of our backline, with its shield of Kante and Matic. Chelsea have controlled the flanks in every game they’ve played since the formation change and it’s hard to see this game being any different.
2) Spurs’ defensive set up will be interesting to see as well. The 3-4-1-2 system Pochettino used at Arsenal looked solid, if slightly flat going forwards and he may be tempted to use it again. With Toby Alderweireld injured however, it would mean the recalling of Kevin Wimmer, against whom Diego Costa, you would have thought, will happily sprint past all evening. The Spaniard is probably the best forward in the country at finding and exploiting mismatches in the opposition defence; in his current form he would be licking his lips at a makeshift Tottenham back line.
A typical back four for Pochettino, could also mean problems however. The threat of Eden Hazard and Pedro in their inside forward positions may prevent Walker and Rose from getting forward too often and if the pair can’t effectively press our wing-backs, they will be exposed to the overlap and being constantly overloaded (especially on the left flank, where Hazard and Alonso continue to combine so effectively).
3) The context of the match makes it interesting also. Man Utd and Everton were both impressive victories, but neither game represented a contest against direct title rivals. We’ve failed in both big tests so far (Arsenal and Liverpool), but we’re a different team now. Victory (especially with a clean sheet) would mark us as not only as the league’s form team, but as genuine contenders for the title.
It’s still slightly tempting to shrink from the label (of genuine contenders). The fact Conte hasn’t changed his team in five games now raises serious questions over how we may cope once form and fitness begins to wane and the inevitable suspensions through card accumulation begins to mandate rotation of the first team. This current XI seems so finely balanced, that the introduction of Ivanovic, Oscar, Cesc and Batshuayi could throw things out, badly.
We shouldn’t be looking for excuses however. Other teams will have injuries to contend with also, on top of more difficult fixture lists. It’s hard to argue our direct rivals aren’t as reliant on their key players (Aguero/De Bruyne), (Ozil/Sanchez), (Firmino/Mane) as we are on Costa and Hazard too. It’s worth remembering that nine of our first team are league winners, six of them are multiple league winners – I think it’s time to start thinking like a big team again. The role of plucky outsiders really doesn’t suit us in the domestic game.