Chelsea bested Tottenham at Wembley today and, because of what has come before, that felt thoroughly predictable. Antonio Conte’s team have largely glided through the Premier League since September, barely missing a step, and so it shouldn’t be such a surprise that they now find themselves in an FA Cup final.
But perhaps, even at this late stage of the season, a new layer to Conte has been revealed.
Chelsea’s success has depended on their excellence, of course, but has also been partly animated by their stability. They’ve suffered very few injuries and the accepted logic is that they are a product of that continuity – a theory supported by the difficulty they experienced recently during Victor Moses’s brief absence and the ripples of uncertainty it created.
Yet today, with three critical pieces missing – Gary Cahill through injury, Diego Costa and Eden Hazard by choice – they were still able to survive an examination from one of the best sides in the country. Obviously, the game’s telling touch did come from Hazard, who scored what proved to be the decisive goal, but given that Conte’s backline featured the unfamiliar Nathan Ake, they were remarkably obstinate. Tottenham had a lot of possession in the final-third and moved the ball around the box with great patience, but rarely did they penetrate behind Chelsea’s back-three – or expose any of the space which was expected to result from Cahill’s absence. Consider that in relation to the players they were facing: Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen; that’s quite a trio to subdue. Alli and Kane may have scored, but both goals resulted from the kind of excellence which no defence could have been expected to withstand.
Importantly, though, the adaptability on show really isn’t one of this Chelsea’s associations: they’re assumed as a house-of-cards football team, only ever one or two enforced absences away from being ineffective. Remove a cog from the mechanism and it stops working.
Their forward-line was lively at Wembley, too. Even before Hazard’s introduction, Pedro, Willian and Michy Batshuayi combined neatly on the counter-attack, providing valuable respite for a back-six who withstood heavy shelling. Over the course of 2016/17, that may have been a feature of Chelsea’s play, but it’s a strength which has ordinarily relied on the developed combinations between Costa and Hazard. The touches between them, the way they move off each other, and the dragging effect that has on surrounding defenders.
That’s what a consistency in selection breeds: chemistry. To remove those players but to retain the same level of threat was remarkably impressive. Conte presumably decided on his Wembley team some days ago, but building a cohesive attacking structure from players with different habits still takes some doing – and, don’t forget, the end product was still effective enough to hurt an opponent with the meanest defence in the Premier League.
So Chelsea showed the world something else on Saturday. All year long they’ve played games on the front-foot, cracking their opposition by controlling the middle of the pitch and examining their weaknesses in concentrated spells. At Wembley, they not only managed to win in an entirely different way, but were also able to conquer a Tottenham team who enjoyed 63% of the possession (Premier League opponents have average just over 46% vs Conte’s team this season). They were taken to an unusual place in that semi-final, a part of town which they’re not familiar with, and yet they still found a way home. They didn’t have to rely on Thibaut Courtois making dozens of saves and their back-three was really more disciplined than heroic; it was a performance, then, which illustrated a further degree of tactical dexterity – one which hasn’t really been acknowledged. They can stand in the middle of the ring and deliver – yes, we know that – but, seemingly, they can also duck, squirm and wriggle when they’re on the ropes, too.
Today, the relevance in that lies in their qualification for another final. Tomorrow, however, it will put the rest of Europe on notice. This isn’t just a fairweather side or one which is too powerful and too smart for English opposition, but rather one which – with Conte leading it – can adapt and adjust to all sorts of different problems.