Chelsea’s bid to get over the finish line in this season’s Premier League title race comes with an eerie sense of déjà vu. The Blues were the division’s most dominant force by a significant distance during the first half of the season – at least, from Antonio Conte’s introduction of the 3-4-3 system in late September onwards – but the second half of the campaign hasn’t been quite as convincing.
Chelsea are by no means limping through their final run-in, but the relentless sprint has regressed into a solid-paced yet slightly awkward jog, their footing misplaced here and there. In the Premier League’s 2017 table, Chelsea are actually third – behind Everton and Tottenham – and could even drop to fourth if Manchester United beat Manchester City tonight.
Chelsea’s last Premier League title in 2014/15 witnessed a similar phenomenon. Jose Mourinho’s Blues were unstoppable until Christmas and playing arguably the best football in the league, missing out on just eleven points and scoring as many goals as Manuel Pellegrini’s free-firing Manchester City with nearly 2.2 per game, but a 5-3 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur on New Year’s Day obliged a change in strategy from the Portuguese. Style and entertainment was pushed to the backseat in favour of simply doing whatever it took to keep the points tally ticking over.
The new game-plan was simple; give nothing away, take the lead and then spoil the match. It heralded cries of ‘Boring, Boring Chelsea’ from opposing fans, a chant that was embraced in irony by Blues supporters as their side finally lifted the title in May.
Once again, a defeat to Tottenham at the beginning of January 2017 has changed the pace of Chelsea’s season, since drawing and losing twice compared to their 13-game winning run prior. The difference this time, however, is that Antonio Conte’s relying on pure potency in attack to make sure his first season in England ends with the Premier League title, rather than his pragmatic instincts and ability to organise his defence like Mourinho.
Conte will be a shoo-in for this season’s Manager of the Year award and on the surface, rightly so. Winning the Premier League title during your debut season in the English top flight is a fantastic achievement – one Pep Guardiola, for example, widely revered as arguably the greatest of his generation, will miss out on.
Likewise, the introduction of 3-4-3 has not only transformed Chelsea back into champions-in-waiting but also resonated throughout the division. Three-man defences were once deemed alien to the English game; this season, every club in the top seven has attempted it or a variation at least once. Even Arsene Wenger’s been drawn in by the trend, fielding Arsenal’s first three-man defence since 1997 against Middlesbrough earlier this month.
Yet, Chelsea’s efforts in 2017 have posed questions he’s not found answers to. Chelsea haven’t kept a clean sheet in the Premier League since the end of January, have struggled on the road against their top six rivals – drawing with Liverpool and losing to Manchester United – and have conceded two goals in their last two top flight fixtures.
Against Southampton particularly, the Blues allowed two sloppy goals that can only be put down to a lack of concentration; firstly, disorganisation at a corner and secondly, switching off in stoppage time to allow Ryan Bertrand a consolation header against his former club. There was even a period of the match in which Saints appeared to be on control, and that has been a recurring trend throughout Chelsea’s last 14 games – pretty much all of them have contained patches of Chelsea looking out of sorts and arguably the lesser side, only for Eden Hazard and his attacking accomplices to fire them clear of a genuine wobble.
Whereas Mourinho dedicated himself to plugging the leaks, Conte is relying upon an attacking cast that he knows will the create chances to sail to shore as quickly as possible. Since the introduction of 3-4-3, Chelsea have failed to score just once in the Premier League, even with their leading goalscorer, Diego Costa, desperately struggling for form – suffering a seven-game drought until Tuesday night.
That’s quite unusual for Premier League pace-setters at this point of the season. Leicester City tightened up last term, scoring more than once just eight times from their final 19 games, Manchester United kept nine clean sheets in the second half of their relatively routine 2012/13 title win and even as City pipped them to the prize on the final day the campaign prior, United’s ultimate eight wins didn’t see a single goal conceded. Eventual champions usually only end the season in free-scoring mode if they’re chasing someone down – City in 2011/12 for example.
The curious thing, however, is that both managers are essentially working with the same group of attacking players, the only difference being the occasional presence of Pedro and the wing-backs providing width. Chelsea’s last six goalscorers, netting eight between them, were all part of Mourinho’s title-winning side, whilst three were signed by the Portuguese himself. Clearly, Chelsea’s change of approach in the run-in isn’t a coincidence; it’s a reflection of the managers’ mindsets.
Of course, there is no definitive right or wrong answer in football; the beauty of the beautiful game is that it’s as much a clash of ideas and philosophies as anything else. Likewise, Conte will be aware that a draw at this stage of the season may as well be a defeat, with Tottenham Hotspur just four points behind. Dropping two points could halve Chelsea’s deficit and swing momentum back in Spurs’ favour.
Therefore, ensuring you score more than the opposition rather conceding less has an obvious logic to it. But if Conte had adopted Mourinho’s approach much earlier in 2017, Chelsea might not be in a position right now where the pressure is on to win every game. Mourinho’s final run-in saw them lose less games, keep six more clean sheets and win more points per match.
Does that make Mourinho’s title more of a managerial achievement than Conte’s – assuming Chelsea will lift it again this term – considering it was sourced from organisation and defensive consistency rather than the sheer attacking quality at his disposal? Perhaps. But there’s no question which run-in Chelsea fans – as well as the neutrals – are enjoying more. ‘Boring, Boring Chelsea’ are scoring their way over the finish line.