Chelsea’s 3-1 win over Arsenal on Saturday in the lunchtime kick off confirmed a number of things for me. The overriding main thought I had was that Antonio Conte’s men are so far ahead in the title race, that not only will they win it, they’ll run away with it this season.
There was a spell in January where the season could’ve imploded on Chelsea. With Tottenham beating them impressively 2-0 at White Hart Lane, a game against fellow title chasers (at the time) Liverpool at Anfield to come and Diego Costa’s much-publicised spat with boss Conte, in which there was talk that Costa had his head turned by a lucrative offer by the Chinese Super League, other teams in the hunt for the title were hopeful that the side from West London could go in to meltdown and be caught.
However, this turned out not to be the case. Chelsea got back on track after the Spurs defeat, their first defeat after 13 consecutive wins, with a 3-1 away win against reigning champions Leicester to ease their worries. The news got better for Chelsea fans, with Diego Costa deciding to turn down the Chinese millions and stay at Stamford Bridge for the foreseeable future. There can be no doubt that Diego Costa has arguably been Chelsea’s most important player this season, with his aggressiveness and class being the deciding factor in many Premier League matches he has played in – his 15 goals and 5 assists at the time of writing this proving my point.
The game against Arsenal on Saturday was seen as a make-or-break fixture in this season’s Premier League calendar. With Chelsea managing to come out of the cauldron that is Anfield with a 1-1 draw on Tuesday evening, other results went their way and boosted their title hopes even further, with Spurs and Arsenal both dropping points. Many people were pinning their hopes on Arsenal to win and shorten the 9 point gap between Chelsea and Spurs in 2nd place. Fail, and it was curtains for the title – no one is realistically going to string together a run of 8,9,10 consecutive wins, which is what’s required, to catch them up, proving how good they are this year.
In the end, it proved to be one of the most impressive performances from Chelsea all season. A display packed full of power, pace, energy and a moment of brilliance from Eden Hazard, they ran out 3-1 winners and no-one could say it wasn’t deserved. It showed why they are going to win the title this year, with N’Golo Kante in particular putting in an absolute defensive masterclass in midfield which epitomised everything that is so impressive about this current team.
When talking about Chelsea’s dominance in the Premier League to other people this season, the one thing I regularly mention is the squad in which Conte is working with currently. Whilst it cannot be doubted that the likes of Hazard, Kante, Costa and Courtois are arguably amongst the best in the world in their positions, there are other players who have found a spot in the starting 11 due to there being no one else good enough to currently play that role at the club – Victor Moses (a winger playing right wing back) and Cesar Azpilicueta (a left back playing on the right side of a back 3) to name just two. With the £60m the club received for Oscar in the January transfer window, Conte will be given a huge amount of money to spend in the Summer to strengthen a side which will surely be the champions of England. Players such as Roma midfielder Radja Nainggolan, Juventus defender Leonardo Bonucci and Celtic striker Mousa Dembele have all been mentioned as summer signings, but none of these have been confirmed as of yet. It is a frightening thought that a side who are so much better than everyone else in the country already will improve even further with players that the manager identifies to be perfectly suited to play in a 3-5-2 formation, rather than makeshift positions which he is currently working with. At Juventus, Conte’s side were famed for their impenetrable back 3 – with Bonucci, Chiellini and Barzagli forming a formidable barrier infront of the legendary goalkeeper Buffon. It is my opinion that Gary Cahill and Cesar Azpilicueta will be identified as an area to improve on in the summer as a priority for Conte, as they are not at the level required to play in a formation such as this.
Next season will bring fresh challenges for Conte, however, with the introduction of Champions League football. One of the reasons why the Blues are so consistently strong this year is due to the amount of rest the team has between each league game. With Chelsea failing to qualify for any European competition last season, like Leicester last year, they have only had the League to concentrate on this year and that is a huge advantage for them, with other teams such as Spurs, Manchester City and Arsenal all having European commitments. Conte is known for being one of the most physically demanding coaches in Europe and with more games to be played next year, it will be his responsibility to ensure he has the squad and a plan ready to combat fatigue if/when it becomes a factor later into the campaign. It was something which he always successfully managed to do at Juventus, with the Italian club finishing extremely strong to secure the Serie A title. However, the Premier League is a different kettle of fish and could prove to be a stumbling block if he does not find the right balance.
The “crisis talks” which supposedly took place after the 3-0 away defeat to Arsenal at the Emirates back in September that saw Conte come under pressure by some sections of the media seem to look very, very silly now.
Catch them if you can.