Chelsea’s title challenge to be built on defense

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SOUTHAMPTON — Antonio Conte and Chelsea seem to have figured out exactly how they will challenge for the Premier League title.

Defense first.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned ]

Conte’s Chelsea side put on a clinic in defensive solidity and supreme counter-attacking in their 2-0 win at Southampton on Sunday, as the Blues made it four-straight wins and four-straight clean sheets. They’re now just one point off the top of the Premier League 10 games into season and it felt like Chelsea put down a marker at St Mary’s.

Things are slotting into place rather nicely for Conte.

Speaking to the media after the game, Chelsea’s boss was delighted with yet another clinical display from his players but the Italian stopped talk of title talk.

“I’m very happy after this performance. I saw great commitment, work rate – with the ball and without it,” Conte said. “For the fourth game we keep a clean sheet. It’s fantastic. It means the confidence is increasing and the players I think the players deserved this because I see them every day, the way they are working. It is important to arrive with this kind of result and performance because in this way they can trust more in the work.”

Conte will be able to tell that winning away at Southampton is a very good indicator of just how good this team unit has become.

Saints haven’t lost at home in nine Premier League games since they lost 2-1 to Chelsea last February. Claude Puel‘s side were unbeaten in five PL matches heading into this game and had been creating shed loads of chances. Chelsea completely nullified their threat and they did it rather easily after going ahead just six minutes in. That certainly helped their game plan.

With players like Eden Hazard and Diego Costa on the break, they made the most of lethal counter attacks as Hazard scored and assisted in the same game for the first time since April 2015 and seems back to his best. Costa curled in a majestic goal in the second half and loves to spring powerful counters with Pedro and Hazard supporting him. The balance and chemistry seems to be an extremely good fit and it certainly helps to have Hazard and Costa in devastating form as they’ll get all the praise.

They got plenty from Conte.

“When you see Eden, Diego and Pedro work very hard during the game you are happy,” Conte said. “They are strikers and usually with strikers it is a bit difficult to work for the team. But it is commitment and work rate is fantastic. Now we must continue on this way. I am pleased because I repeat today it was not an easy game.”

Plenty of praise also has to be thrown Conte’s way for figuring out how to get the best from his group of players. It seems like the 3-0 defeat at Arsenal last month will go down as a massive moment in his time in charge of Chelsea as the Italian coach was furious in the aftermath of a London derby drubbing and vowed to find the solution to get things right. With fellow title contenders Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool all focused on fluid, attacking soccer, Chelsea had to found their own identity, and fast, if they were going to challenge for the crown this season.

The answer to do that was to switch to a 3-4-3 formation and Chelsea have made hard-working players like Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso integral members of their team. In a solid block of seven players when opponents get the ball (those two wings backs, the three central defenders of Cesar Azpilicueta, Gary Cahill and David Luiz and the two central midfielders of Nemanja Matic and N'Golo Kante) it is so hard to break down.

Speaking to the BBC after the game, Cahill revealed that the defense thrives on having the likes of Hazard and Costa ahead of them to spring attacks.

“Four wins in the league now, four clean sheets – we keep going,” Cahill said. “We need those types of [attacking star] players who can turn the game in a moment. It’s a pleasure to have these guys in the side.”

Now, Chelsea must build on this run of four wins. The big challenge will be home games against Everton and Tottenham and a trip to Manchester City in their next four PL outings. Conte’s side have won more games away from home (9) than any other PL team in 2016 as they’re set up to spring counters and sit back. As we saw under Jose Mourinho when the won the title in 2014-15, this Chelsea team is no stranger to setting back and hitting teams where it hurts. It has taken him a little while, but aided by no European action this season and extra time on the training ground, it seems Conte has found a perfect blend of defensive solidity and being able to spring deadly counters.

It’s a cliche in most sports but the “defenses win championships” saying rings true for this Chelsea side.

This is exactly how they will aim to win the Premier League in Conte’s debut season and it seems, right now, to be their best chance of success.

“It is important to pass the first part of the season. If you ask me if I have confidence, then yeah. We’re working a lot. I am seeing lot of positive things,” Conte said.

Most of those positive things stem from one thing: defense.

“I think this is the right way to reach a great satisfaction in this championship,” Conte added. “We know the road is long but it is important to continue to work very hard and to improve… To stay this close in the title and first place I think it is good and gives us great confidence.”