The battle between Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho in the Premier League was supposed to be the story of the season. The two new arrivals at Manchester City and United were expected to move directly to the top of the food chain, ideologically different, but equally dangerous; the new apex predators of the English game.
But after an incredible opening run of 10 straight wins, Manchester City have tailed off, winning only three of their last 11 games. Manchester United never really tailed on to begin with and have won only three of their last nine. Instead, it’s a third new arrival who has stolen the limelight. Over at Chelsea, Antonio Conte makes the strongest claim to be dubbed the best new manager of the season so far.
The fortunes of Guardiola and Mourinho may well change as the season develops – in fact, you’d be rather surprised if they didn’t — but as November draws to a close, Conte can reflect upon an excellent start in the English game. A win over Tottenham this weekend would confirm suspicions that the Blues are going to be serious title contenders.
That will be easier said than done, however. Spurs may be in poor form, but memories of the “Battle of Stamford Bridge” last May still burn in the hearts of the players. Danny Rose admitted that there were tears in the dressing room after Chelsea, who had effectively phoned in their entire season up to that point, suddenly decided to exert themselves just to end Tottenham’s title race and claimed a 2-2 draw that sent the trophy to Leicester. That said, Conte’s side haven’t been troubled by anyone in some time.
It all looked so bleak on Sept. 24 when Chelsea found themselves three goals down at the Emirates Stadium against Arsenal. Conte had been muttering about the business the club had done in the summer, but his own contribution didn’t look too positive either.
After expected wins were delivered against Watford, West Ham and Burnley, points were dropped at Swansea, Liverpool came to Stamford Bridge and won, and then it all went wrong in a 3-0 defeat against Arsenal. There were fears, given that five Chelsea managers in the last nine years have been sacked before their 50th league game, that Conte would be on his way out.
After that defeat, the Italian met with owner Roman Abramovich and told him that changes needed to be made. He highlighted players that he felt were no longer fit for purpose, he asked for reinforcements to replace them and he cited an issue with player power in the dressing room, a recurring theme at Stamford Bridge. He also chose to follow through with the tactical change he’d made in the 55th minute at Arsenal when he’d withdrawn Cesc Fabregas (who hasn’t played a minute since) for defender Marcos Alonso. He chose to push on with a back three.
Italian football knows well what can be accomplished with a back three. Conte used it to great effect when he restored Juventus to the top of Serie A. In English football, it’s a different story. No team has ever won the Premier League with three at the back and few have come close.
Liverpool had their moments in the mid-90s under Roy Evans and it’s frequently been a tool for managers like Steve Bruce and Roberto Martinez, looking for an edge lower down the table, but experiments higher up the league have been swiftly curtailed. It didn’t work for Roberto Mancini at City, it didn’t work for Louis van Gaal at United, and even football’s mad professor, Rafa Benitez, was cautious as to its potential success in England when he wrote about it five years ago. But Conte is making it work.
Following Chelsea’s sixth-straight clean sheet in the league, Thibaut Courtois only regrets not doubling the lead.
David Luiz, whose return to England brought much mirth, has been one of the standout performers of the last month, shrewdly building up moves from the back. Meanwhile, Victor Moses and Alonso, neither of whom were expected to shine, or even play very much, have been tireless on the flanks.
In midfield, Nemanja Matic looks far more comfortable and Eden Hazard has the freedom to express himself instead of getting angry about having to guard his flank. Also, something very odd has happened to Diego Costa: he’s entirely focused on football. His presence in the dressing room seemed so poisonous, his antics on the pitch proved such a distraction that some felt that he should be sold as soon as possible. But he’s turned himself around and has only failed to score in three of his 12 starts this season.
Conte has re-energised a squad that looked drained. Exactly what happened in those last months under Jose Mourinho is still unclear, but it is certain that the relationship between the players and the manager broke down entirely. For one reason or another, they just wouldn’t play for him. They didn’t play much after he left either, but they’re playing for Conte now.
There are a number of obstacles that still need to be cleared before Chelsea can even think about the title. Liverpool, for one. The inevitable resurgence of United and City. And Arsenal and Tottenham won’t be dropping points forever.
But the Blues need to strengthen too. So much rests on the fitness of Alonso and Moses. Back-up on those flanks must be sought as a matter of urgency. A new centre-back would certainly help too, given that John Terry has played only six minutes since the tactical shift and is likely to finally retire, or move on, next summer.
But without the burden of European football, without the distraction of a League Cup run, with all that time on the training field and room for rest, Chelsea are now being taken very seriously indeed. And as it stands, it is Conte, not Guardiola or Mourinho, who stands out as the best new manager in the Premier League.