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.
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.