Don’t mention the ghost of 2015/16.
For much of the past week, those around Stamford Bridge have done their best to dispel the notion that Chelsea were about to repeat that shambolic season in which they lost nine of their initial 16 matches. Their surprise 3-2 defeat at home to lowly Burnley on the opening day coupled with the inactivity in the transfer market tapped into speculation that Antonio Conte was unhappy.
Amateur psychologists even analysed Conte’s choice to wear a tracksuit on the sideline rather than his customary tailored slimline Dolce and Gabbana. “My players said this to me too,” the Italian chuckled in his Friday press conference.
Conte himself has even alluded to the desire to avoid a ‘Mourinho season’, which ended with them languishing in tenth position in the table, the worst defence of a Premier League title by any champion. A loss against Tottenham at Wembley on Sunday would’ve brought another unwanted record – the first current champions to lose their first couple of matches of the following campaign – so the pressure was ramped up on all concerned in the Chelsea ranks.
The feeling of discontent served to undermine Conte further, and some jumped on the opportunity to twist a couple of talking points to create a narrative. There were questions over his handling of the Diego Costa situation and the player himself was unusually vocal, claiming he’d been treated like a criminal, much to Conte’s amusement.
This of course was Costa trying to garner favour for his agenda – the Spanish international having repeatedly tried to force a move over the past year. There was also a rush to judge Chelsea’s decision to sell Nemanja Matic to Manchester United. Pundits suddenly played up the significance of allowing a ‘key player’ join a direct rival, rather than the business logic of cashing in on a 29 year-old who the club had already identified a long-term successor for.
On the face of it, the comparisons between August 2015 and now are obvious, but below the surface their second half rally – when down to nine men due to Gary Cahill and Cesc Fabregas’ red cards – at least pointed to a spirit that was totally absent in Mourinho’s final few months, when he was busy burning bridges while still perched on them.
The list of absentees through injury or suspension made Spurs firm favourites before kickoff, even accounting for their poor record at their temporary home. Chelsea were stripped of Cahill, Fabregas and Eden Hazard while doubts arose over the fitness of Pedro and Tiemoue Bakayoko.
The latter made his debut as part of a makeshift midfield which included David Luiz at the base. Conte elected to change his system and go for a 3-5-1-1 with Alvaro Morata supported by Willian. Luiz’s repositioning gave academy graduate Andres Christensen a chance to start at the back alongside Antonio Ruddiger and the ever present Cesar Azpilicuetta.
Balance is a word Conte frequently uses to describe his team and last year that was the best way to describe Chelsea. Equally adept at playing on the front foot (as they did against Tottenham, Everton and Manchester United in resounding home victories) or on the counter-attack (as they so devastatingly displayed away to Manchester City at the Etihad), they were the most complete side in the league.
Sunday wasn’t about balance though, it was about survival. On BBC’s Match of the Day 2, Ruud Gullit said he was reminded of the catenaccio tactics deployed in Italian football during the 1980s and 90s. Chelsea spent large passages of the 90 minutes batting away relentless pressure, as Spurs penned them in and peppered their area with crosses. They largely handled the occasion and when presented with an opportunity late on, Marcus Alonso snatched the points.
Conte’s shift in formation was a reminder of when he switched to a 3-4-2-1 after successive defeats to Liverpool and Arsenal in October last year or when he schooled Marc Wilmots as his Italian team beat a much superior Belgium at Euro 2016. It once again showed his resourcefulness and the mentality he’s forged within that group.
At the full-time whistle, the scenes were reminiscent of much of last season, as Conte hugged all of his players individually and punched his fists triumphantly in the direction of the travelling supporters. Chelsea face some hugely challenging fixtures in the upcoming weeks, but their manager should at least ensure that they make a better fist of their title defence this time around.