How have Chelsea been so good?

Chelsea's Belgian midfielder Eden Hazard (right) passing the ball during the English Premier League football match between Burnley and Chelsea at Turf Moor in Burnley, England.
Chelsea's Belgian midfielder Eden Hazard (right) passing the ball during the English Premier League football match between Burnley and Chelsea at Turf Moor in Burnley, England.PHOTO: AFP

TACTICALLY ASTUTE CONTE

When Chelsea were walloped by Arsenal back in September, there were doubts voiced about Antonio Conte's methods.

Now that the Blues have won 20 of their last 21 Premier League games, those questions have been allayed.

These days, Chelsea's players are utterly convinced in their manager's philosophy and methods. To latch on to one of the Italian's buzzwords, they clearly "work".

Plenty has been made of Conte's switch in formation. Yet, just as significant has been the atmosphere he has built to dissipate all the tension that lingered from last season's desperate toils. He has created a more family-like atmosphere and has ensured everyone feels part of the campaign to succeed.

There are no shortcuts. Players go home after training with his bellowed instructions seared into their psyche. Now, almost six months on, all that self-doubt after the defeat by Arsenal has gone. Chelsea seem unstoppable, their conviction swollen - and that is largely due to the manager being an inspiration.

KANTE'S BRILLIANCE

Chelsea's opener in their 2-1 win over West Ham on March 7 defined their league title challenge. One moment they were defending. The next they were cutting through the opposition's defence. The catalyst, as so often for Leicester City last season, was N'Golo Kante.

It normally takes one player to win the ball and another to lead the attacking charge. Kante does the work of two men.

Chelsea's success first time around under Jose Mourinho was built on another diminutive French midfielder with a supreme understanding of how to fulfil that role, but Claude Makelele was all about holding his position in front of the back four, leaving it to others to do the marauding. Kante does both and, while he is no Andres Iniesta in possession, he is getting better.

RESURGENT HAZARD AND COSTA

Eden Hazard enjoyed a successful 2014-15 campaign, scoring 19 goals in 52 appearances in all competitions as the Blues won the league title.

He also won the PFA Player of the Year award. But the 26-year-old suffered a difficult period under Mourinho last season when he went 356 days without a league goal.

His poor form was attributed partly to a recurring hip injury. His father, Thierry, said Hazard "was playing through the pain barrier" throughout the season.

This season, a fit-again Hazard has rediscovered his form. He has scored 13 goals so far in all competitions for Chelsea, in comparison to the eight goals he netted last term.

A more central, attacking role under Conte has also brought the best out of the Belgian, who has thanked his manager for giving him the freedom to attack.

"It's easier for me to play more inside now and link up," Hazard told Sky Sports. "Last season I was more out wide and there I am sometimes alone, against two guys."

For Diego Costa, it was more of an anger-management issue. There was a sense at times last season that his off-the-ball antics were distracting him from his game. The frequent clashes with defenders almost felt as if opponents were using Costa's hot temper to their advantage.

Under Conte this season, the Spaniard has learnt to control himself. The results are evident - he has picked up only five yellow cards this season as opposed to 10 yellows and one red the previous campaign. A relatively calmer Costa is then able to do what he does best - scoring goals. He has already scored 17 goals in the league with 11 games left compared to 12 last season.

THE 3-4-3 SYSTEM

In Conte's 3-4-3 system, the most effective full-backs, or wing-backs, have been Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso.

With the additional central defender David Luiz, they have been emboldened to push forward to such effect Alonso has four goals and two assists this season, as does Moses.

Moreover, their forward surges have freed up Hazard and Pedro Rodriguez to drift into those awkward three-quarter spaces in what are in effect inside-forward roles; there is no expectation for them to provide attacking width.

Opponents are forced to try and contain both Moses and Alonso as well as Hazard and Pedro. As a result, they have had few chances to test the Chelsea defence.

Not many teams have managed to get in behind the Blues' backline this season and this proves Conte's 3-4-3 system to be a success.

THE GUARDIAN, THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 12, 2017, with the headline 'How have Chelsea been so good?'. Print Edition | Subscribe