We return to Premier League action on Saturday against Chelsea, and ahead of the game Michael Cox analyses our opponents.
Antonio Conte has been hugely successful since joining Chelsea last summer. An astute tactician and an impressive man-manager, the Blues’ performances were initially underwhelming, but since a change of formation in September they’ve proved almost unstoppable. In what seemed set to be one of the most unpredictable title races of recent years, Chelsea’s nine-point lead by this stage of the season is a huge surprise and Conte deserves great credit.
Chelsea’s pivotal match this season was the 3-0 defeat at the Emirates in September. They were outplayed in midfield and hugely vulnerable to Arsenal’s quick counter-attacking, and in the second half Conte switched dramatically from a 4-1-4-1 system to a 3-4-3 shape. Since then, the Blues’ results have been extraordinary: they immediately won 13 straight league games, of which 10 saw them keep a clean sheet too.
Almost every area of Chelsea’s side has functioned well in this 3-4-3 system, although the midfield duo of Nemanja Matic and N’Golo Kante probably haven’t received enough credit. Kante, in particular, has been sensational in his all-action midfield destroyer role – in the midweek 1-1 draw with Liverpool he made no fewer than 14 tackles – no-one else on the pitch made more than four.
It’s the highest figure from any player in any Premier League game this season. He and Matic remain solid and protect the back three well, which means the Blues are rarely prone to counter-attacking – unlike in the reverse fixture, when Mesut Ozil and Alexis combined for a superb goal on the break.
Eden Hazard is the man who gets Chelsea going. Drifting inside from his left-sided starting position, the Belgian can score, assist and dribble, and is capable of both breaking down deep defences and launching quick counter-attacks too. Diego Costa has been in excellent form – only Alexis can match his 15 league goals this season – and Pedro has rediscovered his Barcelona form from the right flank – but Hazard is generally the catalyst for the Blues’ best performances.
AREAS TO TARGET
Chelsea can be guilty of dropping a little too deep, allowing the opposition’s deep midfielders time in possession. Tottenham, meanwhile, exposed the limitations of the Blues’ wide defenders with two identical goals in a 2-0 victory earlier this month: Gary Cahill is less comfortable than David Luiz and Cesar Azpilicueta at moving high up the pitch to shut down opponents, while Azpilicueta lacks the height of a natural centre-back. Aside from these minor issues, however, Chelsea’s defensive organisation has been superb.
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