How Chelsea won the Premier League in September

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WEST BROMWICH – Sure, Chelsea secured the Premier League title on Friday by beating West Brom 1-0, but it was eight months ago when a simple decision truly crowned them Champions of England.

[ VIDEO: Chelsea win Premier League ]

As the PA announcer at the Hawthorns congratulated Chelsea on becoming the Premier League champions on a Friday night under the lights in early May, the first moment I thought of was back in September.

September 24, 2016 to be exact.

After Chelsea had been demolished 3-0 by London rivals Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium, five days after losing 2-1 to Liverpool at home, it appeared that Antonio Conte had a huge task on his hands to overhaul this ageing Chelsea squad who had underachieved so badly in 2015-16.

[ MORE: Full “Chelsea Champions” reaction, here ] 

He knew it. And he had a plan. He was going to do things his way.

Slamming his fist on the table in the press conference room at Arsenal, Conte was furious. He felt embarrassed, humiliated and was going to make sure he never felt like this again as he’d lost consecutive league games for the first time since 2009.

“I have to solve the situation. That is the most important thing. The situation is that every game we concede two goals, at a minimum,” Conte said, furiously, after the loss at Arsenal. “For this reason, three back or two back or four back, I don’t care. It is important to solve the situations. I must find the right solution for this team because in every game we are conceding two goals. I work a lot to find the right solution.”

He didn’t find the right solution. He found the perfect one.

When asked by ProSoccerTalk after the win at West Brom, Conte agreed that this was THE key moment in Chelsea’s campaign.

“Yeah, honestly. Yes. Yes. Yes,” Conte said. “Because after two bad defeats, not simple defeats, bad, bad defeats, Liverpool and Arsenal. Against Arsenal this game was frustrating for me because during the game I didn’t see nothing of my work, of my idea of football. In that moment it was frustrating for me. I found the strength to change, to take the responsibility to change the system and find a new suit for these players. I think it was the key moment for us. Every single player found in this system the best for them.”

Chelsea’s fans sing his name loud and proud every single game with Conte applauding them back each and every game.

“Antonio, Antonio, Antonioooo, Antonio, Antonioooo!”

Sure, Chelsea have had bumps along the way since that switch with defeats at Tottenham and Manchester United, but the overriding sense has been that every Chelsea player has bought into Conte’s tactics. To be able to get that respect in his debut season in a country where he had never worked before, that takes some doing.

Conte switched to a 3-4-3 formation in the second half of that defeat at Arsenal and Chelsea didn’t concede any more goals, looking more solid, resolute and dangerous on the break.

The code had been cracked. Conte’s watershed moment at Chelsea had arrived. 13-straight wins arrived in the Premier League and an air of invincibility was instilled to not only Chelsea’s players, but also their opponents. The balance was exquisite and Chelsea didn’t show any weaknesses.

Yet that wasn’t the case for the opening months of the season when he’d stuck with what the players were used to. That was a 4-1-4-1 formation with Eden Hazard and Willian allowed to roam free in support of Diego Costa. It wasn’t working, especially defensively, with John Terry, Gary Cahill and Branislav Ivanovic exposed on multiple occasions.

So, Conte reverted to what he knew best. The fabled 3-4-3 formation has been in place ever since as the system he used to help Juventus dominate Italian soccer, plus rejuvenate the Italian national team, has worked once again.

Speaking after the game, Conte admitted that switching to 3-4-3 was the turning point.

“That decision changed our season,” Conte admitted. “We had to change and find a new suit for our team. In my mind there was this option to play a 3-4-3 because I knew I had the players to do that.”

Using full backs he’s been able to unleash Hazard, Willian and Pedro to support the often isolated Costa and his three-man central defense with a more composed Cahill on the left, a shackled David Luiz in the center and the machine that is Cesar Azpilicueta on the right, has given a solid base along with the sensational N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic sat in front to create a block of five.

Tough decisions were made and there have been causalities along the way, and high profile ones at that.

Terry, Ivanovic and Fabregas are the biggest names to lose their regular starting spot with Ivanovic leaving in January for Zenit, Terry announcing he will leave in June and Fabregas’ future remains uncertain despite impressive cameo displays. Yet, the way Chelsea has played and dominated games it has led to those ousting’s labelled as necessary rather than becoming huge storylines hanging over the squad.

Hugging each and every player on his team on the pitch after they secured the title, just like he’s done after every single win this season, Conte’s passion on the sidelines has perhaps overshadowed his bravery and astute tactics.

After arriving in England for the first time he’s not only rejuvenated his own side but he’s brought a whole new philosophy to the league as multiple PL teams have reverted to a 3-4-3 after seeing Chelsea’s success. Tottenham, Arsenal, Everton, Crystal Palace and even Man United have all used the system with varying degrees of success.

Conte is the master of the 3-4-3 and that’s the main reason why the rest of the Premier League is in Chelsea’s rearview mirror.

A battering by rivals Arsenal was the best thing that happened to Chelsea, and Conte, this season. It won them the title.

Day Four: All the action from the U20 World Cup

Hong Hae-in/Yonhap via AP
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South Korea and Venezuela clinched berths in the knockout rounds of the U-20 World Cup on Tuesday, while Germany and Argentina have surprising work to do after two matches in South Korea.

[ MORE: Allardyce steps down at Palace ]

South Korea 2-1 Argentina

Barcelona B man Lee Seung-woo helped South Korea take a 2-0 lead, then hold on for the win and group lead over England.

England 1-1 Guinea

Chelsea youngster Fikayo Tomori scored a wild long range own goal to cost England the three points, but the Blues are still well-positioned to advance out of the group stage. Bournemouth midfielder Lewis Cook scored for England, and it was a beaut.

Venezuela 7-0 Vanuatu

Seven different Venezuelans have scored through a pair of shutout wins, with Caracas’ Sergio Cordova the only one to bag a pair.

Mexico 0-0 Germany

Germany has just one point through two matches, thanks largely to Pachuca’s Abraham Romero’s seven saves. Mexico was outshot 12-6.

Porto, Watford, Hull? Marco Silva in demand

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Marco Silva is one of the hottest properties in management, months after eliciting cries of “Who?” following his appointment at Hull City.

While those cries may have been a tiny bit myopic given his time at Sporting CP and Olympiacos, the 39-year-old is now visible to the world despite Hull’s relegation.

[ MORE: Real Madrid nabs $50m teen ]

Silva will be back in England to meet with Hull on Wednesday, but a clause in his contract that said he could leave if the club was relegated gives the Tigers very little hope.

Rumors have him wanted at Watford, and he’s also been linked with a number of other jobs including Southampton (should the club part ways with Claude Puel).

However, the former right back is also reportedly a target of one of the biggest clubs in his home country: Champions League side Porto.

UEFA Europa League Final preview: Manchester United vs. Ajax

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Jose Mourinho’s big European gamble takes center stage on Wednesday in Sweden, when Manchester United attempts to topple young Ajax in the UEFA Europa League Final.

United’s chances for UEFA Champions League qualification, a magnificent opportunity, are overshadowed by the pall cast over Manchester by sinister terrorist attacks at a pop concert that killed and injured many on Monday night.

Alas, there’s soccer to be played, and Mourinho is looking to make it a trio of shiny items in his first year on the job. United beat Leicester City for the Community Shield, then topped Southampton in the EFL Cup Final en route to Sweden.

United’s well-documented dearth of healthy defenders will march out one more time on Wednesday, with Chris Smalling and Phil Jones tasked with manning the center of the back line. Expect Antonio Valencia and Matteo Darmian out wide.

[ MORE: Full 2016-17 season reviews

Despite the injury to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Mourinho’s attack is going to give Ajax fits. Marcus Rashford has been next level for most of the second half of the season, and United will also likely feature Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Paul Pogba atop Ander Herrera.

If someone is going to break United down, it could be midfield wizards Davy Klaassen and Lasse Schone. The creative middle men have a variety of options to find with the ball, including on-loan Chelsea man Bertrand Traore and Danish teenager Kasper Dolberg.

But how will they deal with United’s attack? Sure Ajax has stopped Lyon, Schalke, Copenhagen, and Legia Warsaw, but United and Mourinho? That’s another challenge for Peter Bosz and his men.

Ajax won the 1992 UEFA Cup, and this is United’s first ever trip to this particular final. The Red Devils are heavy favorites, and we expect United to prevail. Don’t sleep on Juan Mata heroics. Call it 3-1.

Allardyce resigns, opening up intriguing vacancy at Palace

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Sam Allardyce is walking away on top outside the relegation zone.

The veteran Premier League manager, 62, resigned his post as Crystal Palace on Tuesday, weeks after leading another team to safety.

The move ends a tumultuous eight months for Allardyce, who was fired as England manager after an undercover sting exposed unethical dealings with agents.

[ MORE: Full 2016-17 season reviews

It also comes about an hour after somebody wrote that Crystal Palace should move on from Allardyce. What a jerk, that somebody.

Rarely at a loss for words, here’s Big Sam from cpfc.co.uk:

I want to be able to savour life while I’m still relatively young and when I’m still relatively healthy enough to do all the things I want to do, like travel, spend more time with my family and grandchildren without the huge pressure that comes with being a football manager.

This is the right time for me. I have no ambitions to take another job, I simply want to be able to enjoy all the things you cannot really enjoy with the 24/7 demands of managing any football club, let alone one in the Premier League.”

All kidding aside — and I’m far from a Big Sam fan — congrats to the man on walking away to enjoy the finer things in life. He had a heck of a run, and we’ll see how long he can resist being away from the fray. Cheers, Sam.