Sunday 21 January 2018

Brian Kerr: 'Mad genius' Conte has Blues shaping like champions

Accused by Pochettino of being untested, Chelsea ready to send out title message to all their rivals

Chelsea manager Antonio Conte. Photo: Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC via Getty Images
Chelsea manager Antonio Conte. Photo: Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC via Getty Images

Brian Kerr

From my vantage point on the upper deck of the main stand, I sit with a team sheet in my hand and questions in my head.

And I get the sense I'm not the only one. A season which had started promisingly for Chelsea - with wins over West Ham, Watford and Burnley - was threatening to unravel. They'd lost at home to Liverpool, then away to Arsenal and when news emerged that Roman Abramovich had arrived at the Chelsea training ground to inspect Antonio Conte's work, you could have been forgiven for thinking the manager was heading for trouble.

Instead it was to Hull - which was where I was sitting on October 1, staring at these names in front of me, wondering who is going to play where.

Victor Moses? Until this point of his career, he was someone I had only ever seen play in an attacking position.

Cesar Azpilicueta? I knew him as a left-back. And Chelsea under Antonio Conte? Until this day, they were a 4-3-3 team with subtle variety within that system. Little did I think then that Moses would be used as a wing-back - and that he'd perform so effectively and intelligently in that position.

If that surprised me then it wasn't the only shock lying in wait. Marcos Alonso, who'd not impressed me when at Bolton and Sunderland earlier in his career, had clearly come of age during his three years at Fiorentina, no longer acting like a fancy dan, instead like a guy who had a point to prove.

Well, Conte was certainly giving him his chance, paying well over the odds to sign him for £23m in the summer, and using him now as his left-wing back in a 3-4-3 formation.

Somewhat taken aback by their radically different look, I was quickly fascinated by what was unfolding in front of me.

Quite apart from the fragility of their confidence, which had been clearly bruised by the manner of their 3-0 defeat at Arsenal, of even greater intrigue was the shape in which Conte was asking them to line out.

Quarterback

Having watched his career unfold from afar, I was impressed by the way he got the best out of a supposedly washed-up Andrea Pirlo at Juventus, relocating him from an advanced midfield position into a deep-lying playmaker, soccer's equivalent of an American football quarterback.

That it worked so effectively in Juventus' title-winning years under Conte is only partially explained by the fact they were the strongest side in a league which was at a fairly low ebb.

To give the manager due credit, he'd given thought to the potential drawback of positioning a player who wasn't renowned for his defensive work in such a pivotal role.

Yet he also knew that the hard-nosed qualities of the three men behind him - Barzagli, Bonucci and Chiellini - would more than compensate for Pirlo's defensive shortcomings.

And so it proved. Between them, the Barzagli-Bonucci-Chiellini defensive trinity developed a clever understanding of Conte's demands and each other's roles: Chiellini could be aggressive, Bonucci could initiate attacks, while Barzagli was a mixture of the two.

Yet that was with Juventus, before he reunited the trio with the Italian national team. And now he is in England.

Would three at the back work in the Premier League? He must have had his doubts when he didn't use this system initially - and after losing so heavily at Arsenal, it's clear he decided then to go with his instincts and returned to a routine that had served him so well in the past.

For 3-4-3 to work, you need a number of factors to come together. Number one is the responsibility of your position in the back three - and in the first half of this Premier League game at Hull, it's arguable that Chelsea weren't mastering their lines.

But some signs were promising. The three-man defence had similar characteristics to the Juventus trio who Conte managed: Gary Cahill fulfilling the Chiellini no-nonsense persona, David Luiz carrying out the ballplaying Bonucci role (albeit minus the rough edge), Azpilicueta performing a decent impression of Barzagli, although he was a smaller, faster version of the Italian.

And, as soon as Willian scored his superb goal in that game, you could visibly see the confidence in each player, and in the system, develop.

All of a sudden, things started to click. Moses and Alonso ably fulfilled the dual requirements of attack and defence from their wing-back positions, Alonso's athleticism and history of playing full-back allowing him to vary his job-title between wing-back, whenever Chelsea had possession, and left-back, whenever they did not.

As he slid back into a deeper position, Azpilicueta subtly shifted across into a right-back role - with Eden Hazard, placed high up the field for Chelsea attacks, moving to the left side of a midfield quartet - as Conte's 3-4-3 seamlessly turned into a 4-4-2. It was a masterstroke. Results turned around. From Hull they took on Leicester at Stamford Bridge and won 3-0.

Next were Manchester United, Southampton, Everton and Middlesbrough - four more wins, 12 more goals scored and none conceded.

"They haven't played the top teams," Mauricio Pochettino said earlier this week. Yet it is plainly clear they have. Within this six-game winning streak, they've beaten the defending English champions and three other sides - Southampton, Everton and United - who will all expect to finish in the top eight.

Athleticism

And they've impressed along the way. The athleticism of N'Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic in midfield has facilitated Conte's desire to use this attacking system. Plus, as results have improved and confidence has grown, they've all embraced the flexible framework of this new-look system, none more so than Moses and Pedro, two players who - if we are being kind - looked like playing bit-part roles last year.

In fact, Moses couldn't even claim to be as important as a bit-part player, having featured in only nine minutes for Chelsea before the Hull game, spending his last three years on loan at three different clubs.

"That's something I couldn't understand," Conte said this week. "He's energetic, he's physically strong, and technically, he is also strong. He's such a good player."

Pedro, too, is showing qualities that we hadn't hitherto seen, not even at Barcelona. He and Hazard operate with freedom, and their willingness to make diagonal runs are continuing to hurt defences.

Between them, Hazard and Diego Costa have scored 17 goals this season - and are looking much more like the pair who helped Chelsea coast to the 2014/'15 league title, rather than the one who fell apart under Jose Mourinho's abrasive management last season.

And that's the key to this story. This Chelsea team is largely similar in personnel to the one who won the title under Mourinho in 2015, the differences being that Kante has replaced Cesc Fabregas in midfield, Luiz has come in for John Terry, who is injured, Pedro is getting the nod ahead of Willian - although significantly it was Willian's fine 61st-minute goal in Hull which turned their season around, while Moses is preferred to Branislav Ivanovic. Oscar is another victim of this reform.

So you can't say there has been huge alterations. Although the re-introduction of David Luiz is important on a number of levels, firstly because he was almost a figure of fun after his first spell at Chelsea, when he was seen as a player who was caught out taking too many risks, secondly because he has clearly improved.

This Conte-inspired system suits his game. If adventurous, he has men behind him with the pace to provide cover. Encouraged to play to his strengths, he is doing so. His rehabilitation as an individual is a microcosm of Chelsea as a team.

And underpinning it all is their manager, who performed a superb job for Italy at the Euros - an Italian team, which, if you remember, was dubbed 'the worst in their history' by one of their journalists in advance of the competition.

Yet they beat fancied Belgium in their opening game, took care of Sweden before advancing to the last 16 where they tactically out-thought Spain.

Defeat to the Germans, via a penalty shoot-out, was far from a disgrace and highlighted again how Conte's energetic persona is reflected in the manner in which his teams play.

Watching him on the sideline - not just that day in Hull - but on every occasion I have seen him, is always an engaging exercise, because I not only like his demonstrative ways and evident passion but also the clarity of the information he delivers.

Sometimes, when I'm watching Pep Guardiola's hand signals, I'm often confused by what message it is that he is trying to get across.

Are his players also scratching their heads? With Conte, you can be sure, they're not. His gestures are clear and decisive. Players, you can be sure, act upon what he tells them, for fear of what he might say to them when they return to the dressing room.

"It's fairly straightforward with Antonio," Pirlo said after working with him. "He's a genius but like all geniuses he can be a little bit mad."

You sense he'll be a little mad at Pochettino's jibe from earlier this week ahead of today's key game. And yet he'll also sense an opportunity.

Europe can exhaust a team, mentally as well as physically, and the fact Tottenham have returned from Monaco with a defeat and an exit from a competition they fought so hard to get into, will be playing on their minds as well as their bodies.

By contrast, Conte has had all week to work on his players ahead of this game.

Their freshness bodes well not just for today but for the rest of the season. You only have to look at how Leicester benefited from their easier fixture schedule in the title run-in last year to realise how being out of Europe can bring its advantages too.

Liverpool, the season they finished runners-up to Manchester City, when Brendan Rodgers was in charge, also profited from the fact they weren't playing European football while their title rivals were engaged in continental pursuits.

So what I am saying is clear: Chelsea aren't just potential winners today. They're potential title winners as well.

Chelsea v Tottenham

Live, BT Sport 1, 5.30

Irish Independent

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