It’s fair to say that the first half of last season was a blip for Chelsea, albeit a serious one that cost Jose Mourinho his job. Going from Premier League champions to strugglers in a matter of months was never about the standard of the squad; something evident after Guus Hiddink took over temporary charge and the Blues form improved, with them eventually finishing tenth in the Premier League. As the season drew to a close, Diego Costa and Eden Hazard, two players who had been so influential in the previous season’s title win had rediscovered their form after both looking shadows of their former selves in the first half of the campaign. It was a season where the previously colossal Thibaut Courtois and Nemanja Matic struggled and the normally dependable Branislav Ivanovic became a hapless figure. Meanwhile, new signing from Barcelona, Pedro, found his debut season at the Bridge tough and failed to establish himself. Chelsea had lost not only their confidence and defensive resoluteness, but also an element of ‘fear factor’ that they held, particularly at Stamford Bridge; only Willian consistently shone.
The summer saw former Juventus coach Antonio Conte brought in as new Chelsea manager, a man with an impressive track record and reputation for tactical nous.
There were questions as to how quickly Conte could transition as a coach into English football, if he could or even would implement his favoured 3-4-3 formation and just how much he would want to change the Chelsea squad. It’s fair to say that Conte has taken little time to transition and not only has he been able to implement the 3-4-3 formation, but Chelsea’s recent success has come since the change of formation.
In terms of squad changes, Marcos Alonso raised some eyebrows, though not as many as the re-signing of David Luiz, but one signing came with higher expectation levels. N’Golo Kante arrived from newly crowned Premier League champions Leicester after a season where his and Leicester’s fortunes were in stark contrast to Chelsea’s.
Kante had an incredible impact on the Leicester team and although Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy got the majority of attention, Kante was arguably the key component to their effectiveness. He may not have been the one scoring or making the majority of goals, but he was often the one winning the ball and setting off the counter attacks that brought The Foxes their success. To attribute all their success to him would be wrong and unfair on other influential players, but the role he performed can never be underestimated and evidence of that can be seen in how Leicester have performed in the defence of their crown.
Kante’s performances earned him a place in the France national team that reached the final of the European Championships in the summer, where he proved his debut Premier League season was no fluke. What Kante offers can be seen in what Leicester miss since his departure, his ball winning ability is not simply about athleticism and tackling, it’s about reading the game and good positional play that affords him to make regular interceptions. The defensive solidity that was a foundation to the quick transition counter attacking play is gone for Leicester and their defence, that never looked convincing on paper, is now being exposed. Their midfield simply doesn’t impose as well, starving the once affluent Mahrez and Vardy.
Whilst the Premier League fairy-tale story may now be a distant memory for Leicester, Kante is looking increasing likely to add another title winners medal to his collection. Chelsea’s victory over Crystal Palace was their eleventh in succession; a truly remarkable run for Conte’s team that has coincided with the formation change. That change has undoubtedly aided their balance and Kante plays an important role in that, with that athleticism and ball winning ability helping to protect the defence and initiate those quick transitions that have seen Hazard, Costa and Pedro come to the fore.
An interesting side note to Chelsea’s win over Palace was the bookings for both Costa and Kante. On paper, with Michy Batshuayi to call upon, the loss of Costa can be covered. However, whether or not Kante can be replaced or role in the team replicated remains to be seen. It’s a caveat that makes Chelsea’s next match against Bournemouth so intriguing and although they should still have more than enough to see off the Cherries, it could highlight just how influential and important Kante is to the successful functioning of any team he plays in.