Heart Of Football

Chelsea no longer battling the blues, thanks to Conte

Two weeks ago, before the international break disrupted club football around the world, Chelsea played the most complete game seen in this season's Premier League yet.

The 5-0 thrashing of Everton could have been any score you could imagine.

It was Chelsea's fifth successive win, in a purple patch for the Blues during which 16 goals were scored and none conceded. The run began, apparently, after a polished Italian leather shoe kicked water bottles into the air in a blue, blue mood in the dressing room at half time during the 0-3 loss Chelsea suffered at Arsenal on Sept 24.

"Bad result, bad performance, bad attitude," said the owner of the shoe, coach Antonio Conte. "The worst in our games until now."

The voice was hoarse and breaking, the eyes dark but firm. Conte sucked on a lozenge tablet imported from Italy to help soothe the throat worn by his touchline shouting.

"We must reflect… me, the staff, the players, to decide the right way. We have to work, not only on the pitch, but during the training sessions. Otherwise we are a great team only on the paper, and we have another bad season like last season."

Chelsea's switch to a back three, along with a few personnel changes, have given them a fluency evinced by five wins on the trot.
Chelsea’s switch to a back three, along with a few personnel changes, have given them a fluency evinced by five wins on the trot. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

So if there is high intensity and work ethic in this Italian's blood, there is also a recognition of real talent, of beauty being served.

You work to earn the right to play under Mister Conte.

He concluded that Chelsea had to find balance.

The "balance" has been described from the outside as Chelsea going to three at the back, converting a team in the EPL into the 3-4-3 formation that Conte favoured with Serie A sideJuventus as well as the Italian national team.

The strategy has been described as implanting an Italian defence into England's league. Aside from the fact that you would actually struggle to find an Englishman (Gary Cahill being the lone exception) in the line-up, the other misconception is that this is bound to eschew flair in search of suffocating Italian safety.

Conte, remember, played as a midfield energiser alongside the likes of Zinedine Zidane and Alessandro Del Piero. He coached a team built around the flair of Andrea Pirlo.

So if there is high intensity and work ethic in this Italian's blood, there is also a recognition of real talent, of beauty being served.

You work to earn the right to play under Mister Conte.

He never speaks of Jose Mourinho, or the negativity he inherited at Stamford Bridge. He doesn't hide from the evidence that players, as well as the last coach, lost the enthusiasm and the will to give everything.

But Conte alluded to it after the Arsenal defeat when he said that Chelsea was a good team only on paper, and faced another season like the last one unless they got down to work and resolved to be the sum of their parts.

At that time, some newspaper reports suggested that Conte was on his way out even before he had addressed the broken parts (and broken morale) handed to him.

He didn't duck those stories either, smiling wryly at the "imagination" of outsiders spreading the rumour so soon after his arrival.

But Arsenal's kick up the backside played into Conte's hands.

It gave him the right to tell the Chelsea stars that they would play his way - work his way - from then on.

"Finding the balance" was bad news for three players in particular. Branislav Ivanovic had looked too slow throughout last season, and hasn't played since the Arsenal game.

Cesc Fabregas, who didn't shine last season, but Willian who certainly did, have also, so far, been sacrificed and might find it a long way back into the team that now has more pace, more panache and more fluency than before.

The return of David Luiz, sold off by Mourinho and bought back at a cut-price rate, seemed to puzzle everyone, even, it was whispered, Conte. Yet the flop-haired Brazilian has been core to the new back three - the Third Man, to borrow a line from the 1949 film scripted by Graham Greene.

Giving Luiz licence to play, with reason, in a threesome flanked by Cahill and, importantly the pacy Cesar Azpilicueta, has worked just fine against Hull, Leicester, Man United, Southampton and Everton.

Spotting that Victor Moses, a no-no under Mourinho, has the speed, the desire and the defensive discipline to operate as a right wing-back is surely down to Conte's fresh eyes on the Blues.

And using the speedy Spaniard Marcos Alonso on the other flank gives Chelsea flying speed on counter attacks.

Alonso's presence also frees up Eden Hazard to look more like the best player in the league he was two seasons ago, and much less the sulky rebel he looked last year. "Eden works hard with the ball, but also without the ball," said Conte.

Changing attitude - bad attitude - has done the trick. And not just with Hazard who now floats to dynamic effect, sniffing out scoring opportunities in a role that looks just like the old-fashioned inside-forward of the English game and further infield than a winger.

And Diego Costa? What can we say. Deadly in his first Chelsea season, brooding and homesick for Atletico Madrid in the second, the wild man striker has been converted into a forward who is looking for goals (and not so much for fights) game after game after game.

Conte's revolution isn't finished. It was an easy decision to buy out the contract of Leicester City's N'Golo Kante and make him, together with another restored midfield holding player Nemanja Matic, a combination of energy and responsibility closing the spaces in front of the back three.

One final piece in the jigsaw, another rarely trusted by the last management, was to inject the pace of the former Barcelona winger Pedro. Purchased while Mourinho was in charge, but neither sure of his place nor consistently used, the Spaniard is currently in the side ahead of Willian and Oscar.

Five wins out of five games doesn't erase what happened at Arsenal. Conte is fretting this morning because the international break challenges him, and everyone, to get back the continuity, the focus and intensity of what went before.

And I'm guilty of almost ignoring the task that Chelsea has today at Middlesbrough. "It is a strong team," Conte insists. "Middlesbrough has drawn with Arsenal and with Manchester City. It plays with high intensity too."

Indeed it does. Chelsea must match that, and impose its class.

MIDDLESBROUGH V CHELSEA

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 20, 2016, with the headline 'Chelsea no longer battling the blues, thanks to Conte'. Print Edition | Subscribe