Chelsea have made a 100% start to the new Premier League season – here Sportmasta take a closer look at what Antonio Conte is doing differently to former manager Jose Mourinho.
With the first international break of the season now upon us, the early title favourites have established themselves at the summit of the Premier League. Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea are three for three as August draws to a close, with the trio’s new managers working wonders already. Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte have each impressed in their early weeks at their respective helms, with the three teams topping England’s top tier.
While City and United were expected to challenge early on given the sheer level of investment this summer, Chelsea’s rise to the top has been less expected. The Blues required late goals to secure maximum points against West Ham and Watford before ending the month on a high with victory over Burnley. It’s a vast improvement on the four points Chelsea gained from the opening three league games last season, when it took nine games for the Blues to secure their third win of the campaign.
The poor start to the catastrophic title defence ultimately cost Jose Mourinho his job, though he was somewhat unfortunate. 2015 Player of the Season Eden Hazard was suffering with injuries, with Mourinho unable to maximise his attacking qualities. As a result, the Blues suffered, but after ending the previous campaign strongly, the Belgian has made a superb start to life under Conte. Only Curtis Davies (8.49) has gained a better WhoScored.com rating than Hazard (8.25) in the Premier League this season, with his 17 successful dribbles better than any other player.
His influence in the final third is having the desired effect for Chelsea, who are averaging far more shots per game this season (17) than they managed after three games under Mourinho last term (12). Indeed, with Hazard seamlessly breaking through the opposition defence, the Blues have averaged more key passes per game (12.3) than at the same stage last term (9.3). Not only has Hazard’s impact been vital, but the return to form of Diego Costa has provided the crucial focal point to help in Conte’s 4-1-4-1 formation.
In the early stages of last season, Costa would often pull to the wings and while this is a requirement when operating as a lone frontman, that Chelsea had no players in the opposition box to finish off chances meant the Blues were lacking in the penalty area. Indeed, Conte has now demanded Costa remain more central to allow the wide men – Hazard and Willian – free reign to provide the attacking width.
As a result, Chelsea have benefited, with no player directly involved in more goals than Costa (3) in the Premier League this season. While there has been a hint of good fortune – he should arguably have been red carded against West Ham before netting the winner late on and missed the subsequent victory over Watford, or received his marching orders before his late strike in the latter win – he’s enjoying a far more profitable third season in London than he did second. The arrival of Michy Batshuayi has evidently had the desired effect on Costa’s improvements, with the Belgian a better back-up than Loic Remy, Alexandre Pato and Falcao.
Despite just 32 minutes of action, Batshuayi has been directly involved in two goals, providing the vital assist for Costa’s winner against West Ham before bagging the equaliser against Watford. Importantly, though, is that with Conte able to utilise Batshuayi from the bench, the Italian can re-shuffle his side to move from a 4-1-4-1 to a 4-2-4 formation, with the pair quickly striking up an understanding when the Belgian is introduced.
A key component in that regard, though, has been N’Golo Kante. While Nemanja Matic was vital in Chelsea’s title win, the Serb lost his way a little, shirking his defensive responsibilities last season. In Kante, however, Conte has his midfield general to shield the back line. “Eat grass,” was the manager’s maxim at Juventus; Kante absolutely devours the stuff. He is averaging the second most tackles (2.7) and interceptions (1.7) of all Chelsea players and impresses when on the ball, with his pass success rate (95.1%) the third best of all Premier League players to make at least one start this season.
Chelsea are averaging more possession under Conte (58.9%) than they managed at this stage under Mourinho (53%) yet are averaging the same number of tackles (15). If anything, this only accentuates Kante’s efficiency in the middle of the park, with the France international ensuring there is as little pressure on the Chelsea goal as possible. It’s allowed the Blues to concede the fewest shots per game (6.3) in the Premier League so far this season – a huge dip on the 16.7 after three games last term.
Of course the differing quality between the three teams Chelsea met this season compared to last is staggering. The Blues faced tough away days at Manchester City and West Brom, whereas Conte’s only away trip has been to a Watford side still finding their feet under Walter Mazzarri. However, you can only beat what is in front of you and Chelsea have done just that so far this season. The defence needs investment before the transfer deadline, but there are positive signs of improvement under Conte, with the new signings and primary attackers each having an influential role that has helped Chelsea to a 100% record.