LONDON: Antonio Conte has the rest of the Premier League frightened with his Chelsea revival which has taken the Blues to the top of the table after a run of six victories without conceding a goal writes KEIR RADNEDGE.
Latest evidence of the ‘fear factor’ was presented by Tottenham manager Maurico Pochettino in Monaco in the Champions League on Tuesday night.
Pochettino, even though Spurs had to win in the Stade Louis II to avoid Champions League elimination, rested three key defenders in Kyle Walker, Jan Vertonghen and Danny Rose ahead of Saturday evening’s visit to Chelsea.
The league lead has changed nine times so far already this season and Conte has admitted to being tired by the hectic, high-tension pace. Conte appears to put almost as much physical effort into a match as some of his players.
Hence his admission that he was using the international break not to spy out new players or work with the reserves but to go home to Italy for a rest to recharge his batteries.
After only a third of the season a mere four points separate the top five teams, all of whom have realistic ambitions of winning it. Not only is the contest intriguing but so are the tactical and stylistic variations being employed by Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool, Arsene Wenger at Arsenal and, of course, Conte.
The 47-year-old has never made any secret of the fact that he discovered his favoured three-at-the-back system by accident. But it has served him well with Italy and Juventus – helped by the coincidental availability of ideal exponents in Bonucci, Barzagli and Chiellini – and now Chelsea.
At the start of the season Conte ‘allowed’ his new players to continue with the four-man back line favoured with success by a long list of predecessors including Jose Mourinho (twice), Carlo Ancelotti and Guus Hiddink.
However, a 3-0 defeat at Arsenal on September 24 prompted Conte to do it ‘his way.’
Hence the switch to 3-4-3 with Cesc Fabregas dropped out of midfield and the much-derided prodigal David Luiz slotted in to the centre of the defensive trio.
Eden Hazard has benefited startlingly. The Belgian was Footballer of the Year in inspiring Chelsea’s Premier triumph in 2015 but had a nightmare last season; his loss of form was cited as one of the fault lines which led to Mourinho’s sacking.
Hazard infuriated Mourinho regularly with his reluctance to track back down either wing. But now he no longer has this responsibility and has been freed to Conte to roam forward and cause problems for opponents all match long. In 12 league games Hazard has made 52 successful dribbles, compared with 89 in the whole of last season.
Diego Costa, 10-goal top scorer in the league, has also rediscovered the attacking focus which deserted him last season. But the greatest revelation has been Victor Moses. He has been converted from a journeyman winger into a raiding right wingback equally as effective as Spurs’ Kyle Walker and Liverpool’s Nathaniel Clyne.
Conte is an assiduous student of medical and fitness statistics but he also credits the club policy under which players receive a bonus only if they claim trophies rather than win individual league or cup fixtures or qualify for Europe.
The Premier Manager of the Month for October says: “When you win a game during the championship, you win a battle, only one battle. But when you win a trophy, you win the war. I like this. I love to win the war.”