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News analysis

Numbers game brings Blues a big advantage

There is nothing new in football, but every so often we witness a small revolution.

Leicester City stirred ferment, usurping the fascination with cautious possession, fielding 4-4-2 and breaking on the counter-attack, a rudimentary tactic that brought sophisticated results.

Everybody could see it, everybody expected it and nobody could cope. The blue flag of Chelsea flutters above this season's barricade.

Perhaps Leicester's story had something to do with reputation, the sense that no matter the evidence, other clubs backed themselves to beat a team who had wrestled with relegation 12 months earlier.

But Chelsea have also shown that difference really can be the difference. By playing three at the back, Antonio Conte has given teams a lock to unpick and stuck a dagger into conservatism.

Brains are whirring, plans are being formulated and decisions are being executed, albeit without success.

But Chelsea have also shown that difference really can be the difference. By playing three at the back, Antonio Conte has given teams a lock to unpick and stuck a dagger into conservatism.

"All around the country, coaches will be trying to work out how to stop Chelsea," David Moyes said before Wednesday's match, but, as Leicester demonstrated so vividly, recognising variation is not the same as understanding it.

Chelsea's 10 consecutive victories point to a repetition of recent history.

"They're 3-4-3 and they play with very high wing-backs, so at times it's five up front," Moyes said. "You have to cope with that when you've not got the ball and then work out how you can cause them problems when you do have it.

"They quite quickly get into a back five when they need to and they've also got two midfield players who sit. But on the other side, they've got the ability on the counter-attack with Pedro and (Eden) Hazard, waiting for things to break down.

"Conte's done brilliantly well.

"They look a really good team, but I think I'm right in saying that in the history of the Premier League, there isn't a team that has won the title consistently playing three at the back.

"People will be looking hard for ways to stop them first of all, and then they'll be looking to find ways of beating it."

Systems cannot win matches, but exacerbating the strengths of players while hiding their weaknesses will do precisely that and Chelsea are again well drilled and comfortable, defined by their roles.

Even when things do not whirr to perfection - this was clunky and unadventurous - they are adroit enough to compensate.

Sunderland did not wilt but, when Patrick van Aanholt shot with power in the dying seconds, Thibaut Courtois produced a brilliant save.

Since Conte's deployment of his favoured system midway through the 3-0 defeat by Arsenal in September, Chelsea have been flawless in the league.

With their injuries and fallibility, Sunderland were never likely to challenge them, but another game has elapsed, the lead is six points and an answer has not been found.

Conte has the right players in the right places; knowing what they do is not proving much help.

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 16, 2016, with the headline 'Numbers game brings Blues a big advantage'. Print Edition | Subscribe