The story of the Chelsea season so far largely gets written through the prism of Antonio Conte. However, we should also take a look at some his chief characters whose own efforts best represent the work done by the entire team.
If Chelsea do win the title, they will have needed some…
Direction and leadership – David Luiz
One of the most alarming aspects of last season was the lack of purpose and leadership at Chelsea. Often, the noise of the crash reflects the sturdiness of the object falling. It felt this way with Chelsea last season. Mourinho, for so long the leader and strategical genius at Chelsea, had no answers to anything. Guus Hiddink, the go to guy, couldn’t perform another 2008-9 rescue act. Finally, the insurance, John Terry was probably in the worst form of his career as the Chelsea defence leaked like a sieve.
A brief moment in September’s Chelsea v Leicester match confirmed to me that we’d woken from the nightmare. David Luiz instructing Gary Cahill where to position himself and visibly providing encouragement throughout the game. It was a small moment but when placed in the context of having the joint best defensive record in the league it becomes all the more telling. Chelsea have built our current league position on a collective will to apply Antonio Conte’s new 3-4-3 system. That requires leaders in the team to effect it properly and a strong defensive core to allow the attacking players to be decisive. David Luiz has ensured that both boxes are ticked
Energy – N’Golo Kante
Last season Chelsea didn’t play, we plodded. Waddling through the early part of 2015-16 like a disinterested cat after a heavy meal. As after 2015-16, we still rank 5th in the passing stats but there is a purpose to our play that places us several places higher up the table that matters.
This is in no small part attributable to one’s man contribution to Antonio Conte’s designs. It’s hard to measure these things accurately but, aesthetically and emotionally, N’Golo Kante seems to catalyse the entire team and the supporters with it. He is currently ranked 2nd in league of Premier league tacklers behind Idrissa Gueye but that’s only a fraction of the story. Kante’s constant, and purposeful, motion is a season long rebuke to the dormancy of Chelsea 15-16. I’ll leave it to Eden Hazard to summarise:
“I think sometimes when I’m on the pitch I see him twice, one on the left, one on the right. I think he plays with a twin.”
Discipline – Cesar Azpilicueta
The brilliance of Conte’s 3-4-3 is the way it’s executed. In Cesar Azpilicueta, Conte had a player ready with both the ability and the character to make the defensive shape work.
Azpilicueta has now played right across the defensive line and won praise for his work in doing so, in each position. A natural right back, he was voted Chelsea players’ player of the year after just 1 season at left back in 2013-14. As Jose Mourinho said that season:
‘Azpilicueta is the kind of player I like a lot. I think a team with 11 Azpilicueta’s probably could win…because football is not just about the pure talent.”
Conte is the latest in a line of Chelsea managers to trust Azpilicueta to operate in a new role for the team’s benefit. And it has worked brilliantly. Using his excellent 1 v 1 defensive ability and marrying it to his positional awareness, he has translated his instincts as a right back into those of a right sided centre back. He has done so game after game without fuss and seemingly without missing a beat. If Thibaut Courtois does win the golden gloves, he may well thank the Spaniard for his contribution.
Silky Skill – Eden Hazard
There’s little more to say about the Belgian other than to repeat again what we all ought to have known last season (just until it sinks in): he had a hip injury for most of the season. A reminder from his Dad last March:
“Eden’s lack of form is due to an injury, an inflammation in the hip, that he’s been carrying now for three or four months…
“…when the pain appears, it feels like a stabbing. It’s feels like a knife is stabbed in it.”
His goal against Arsenal, typifies everything about the man who was player of the year back in 2014-15 and the player who is excelling this season. There came his qualities on full display, one after the other: strength, pace and decisive execution of his wonderful technique. Chelsea are back and so is Hazard.
Renewal – Victor Moses
It’s summer 2016, you’re recovering from the worst Chelsea season for 20 years. Now someone tells you that the following season Victor Moses will be one of the most important players in the team. Playing at right wing back.
Yes he can. Yes he did. As Moses inked in his new contract this month a host of youth footballers ought to have been watching. Attitude and application can still make a real player.