Why Chelsea should be Premier League title favourites
Never has a Premier League season been so unpredictable at its outset, with, in the words of Arsene Wenger, ‘eight or nine’ different outfits being in with a chance of winning it. After the arrival of so many world class managers, and the hegemony of the country’s best teams being unsettled by Leicester’s remarkable 2015/2016 campaign, as well as the introduction of the Premier League’s record TV deal, you could probably make a valid case for at least five teams sweeping to domestic league success this season.
But in and amongst the heated competition that will only intensify as the season progresses, it’s Chelsea that should be turning heads more than any other. Here’s why.
It’s quite a simple and ‘stock’ line of argument to say that a team has a good chance of winning the league because they have a good manager, but Chelsea genuinely have a good chance of winning the league because they have an excellent manager. Antonio Conte has slipped further under the radar in light of Pep Guardiola’s arrival and the return of Jose Mourinho, as well as the fact that Britain is fairly insular and doesn’t really watch Italian football and doesn’t really know who he is. All of this will ease the pressure off Conte while the tabloids and pundits maintain their focus on all things Manchester.
As explored in another Football Faculty feature, Conte’s status as an outstanding manager would be greater had Massimo Allegri, his replacement at Juventus, not matched his success and taken them to the 2015 Champions League final. Without that, more heads may have turned when his appointment was originally announced. Conte’s achievements while in Torino, by the way, extend to three Scudetti, the 2012 Coppa Italia, and two Supercoppa Italiana; Juventus finished seventh in the season before he joined.
Insiders have coloured in the picture on what Conte’s management entails. As Andrea Pirlo explained in his autobiography:
“Conte only needed one speech, with many simple words, to conquer both me and Juventus. He had fire running through his veins and he moved like a viper. ‘This squad, dear boys, is coming off two consecutive seventh-place finishes. It’s crazy. It’s shocking. I am not here for this, so it’s time to stop being so crap.’… When Conte speaks, his words assault you. They crash through the doors of your mind. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve said: ‘Hell, Conte said something really spot-on again today'”.
If Conte could connect with veterans and experienced players so quickly, it bodes well for him hitting the ground running in London.
But more importantly, there’s a tactical parallel between Conte’s previous playing preferences and the squad he has inherited at Chelsea. It may be easy to forget, but in 2014/2015 Chelsea won the league by eight points, playing a very particular style of football. That style was all about extremely aggressive pressing in narrow spaces, before lightning fast counter attacks. Juan Mata and Kevin De Bruyne were shelved because they weren’t defensively conscious enough, nor- seemingly- fast enough to make the formation work to Jose Mourinho’s high standards. In their place saw Oscar and Willian favoured, players with freakish work rates, as well as Diego Costa, who’d flourished in a physically demanding forward role under the also defensive Diego Simeone at Atlético. Just re-watch Chelsea’s 6-0 hammering of Arsenal years back to see how it could be an unplayable style to come up against when it all came together.
As Italian expert Augusto de Bartolo outlined recently, Conte’s managerial style plays directly into his new players’ tendencies:
“In the non-possession phase, his team pressures opponents high up the pitch – even when defenders are trying to play out from the back. Conte uses an aggressive approach, trying to win the ball back as soon as the team can, making the space near the ball short and busy. Chelsea already have players with these skills”.
In short, while Manchester City will grapple with Guardiola’s new methods, which includes playing full backs in the centre of midfield, expect Chelsea to be quick out of the blocks under Conte this season.
More doubt should be cast over how appropriate ‘neo-tika-taka’ will be for City in the Premier League; 77% possession against Sunderland on Saturday yielded just four shots on target. It shouldn’t be forgotten that the cliche, ‘Can they do it on a cold rainy night at Stoke?’ was born from the argument that Barcelona wouldn’t win the Premier League because Guardiola’s passing style was too romantic for the cold physical hearts of bottom half Premier League teams. City remain odds on to win the league, but whether passing your way to the title is possible seems doubtful. It’s certainly failed for Arsenal in the last twelve years and the biggest crticism of Wenger’s sides has been his desire for the perfect goal and an absence of physical grit.
Those who think, however, that Conte is married to a three/five at the back formation, which naturally wouldn’t suit Chelsea at the moment, should think again. He only played that way at Juventus because it was entirely logical. The Barzagli, Chiellini, Bonucci defensive partnership has been the finest in Europe for about three years and Conte was merely being pragmatic when he set his side up like that. Until Chelsea sign a defender (Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly has been heavily linked), Conte will probably set up with two centre backs, not three.
But away from City and Guardiola, Chelsea’s other main rivals, United, could also start slowly. Mourinho himself has voiced his concerns on adapting United to his principles:
“My teams are different to Mr Van Gaal, and it is a difficult situation to change the dynamics. It would be easier for me to have 20 new players and start from zero. For two years, they had some principles of play that are not mine – clearly, they are not.”
Mourinho’s also questioned the fitness of his players, something that will unlikely be an issue under Conte, whose no nonsense methods have led to the banning of pizza, ketchup, fizzy drinks and brown sauce in a strict new dietry plan at Cobham.
True, there’s no guarantee that a good start to the season is conducive to winning the league nine months later in May. But that’s where the crucial factor of Chelsea’s absence from European football this season is so important. In analysing Leicester’s prospective credentials this season, it’s been noted by pundits that a Champions League campaign is actually more mentally exhausting than physical, and to compete on both European and domestic fronts is a very difficult feat. Look only at Liverpool under Brendan Rodgers and Leicester last season to see how teams who can focus solely on the league at the weekend can benefit immeasurably.
Those points all relate to what will change in the Premier League this season. What actually hasn’t changed is the fact that Chelsea’s squad has won the Premier League before, and is still one of the strongest in Europe. The arrival of N’Golo Kante is a superb signing, and if Chelsea had any defensive concerns heading into their opener, the Frenchman’s resounding defensive quality will undoubtedly be influential.
The spotlight for success has strangely steered nowhere near Chelsea and Conte in pre-season. The fun-fair are still out for Pep, and to a lesser extent his impending rivalry with Mourinho as El-Classico will be re-born in England. Chelsea should adapt to their manager’s style faster than either Manchester club, and they’ll be unshackled from the demands of mid-week European football and the pressure of being expected to push for the title after last year’s meltdown. While the finest of margins will likely settle this Premier League campaign, there’s enough evidence to suggest that Chelsea will have an edge, allowing them to come back to the forefront of English football with a vengeance under their new lethal manager.