Chelsea have been utterly dominant this season – since their 3-0 loss to Arsenal of course – marching their way to the Premier League title courtesy of Michy Batshuayi’s goal.
They have been ahead of Tottenham, and indeed the rest of the chasing pack, for quite some time now, top of the table since they beat Everton in November, which is remarkable considering the hype that was built around the most competitive league in the world™.
Indeed, Chelsea’s vice-like grip over the league title looks eerily similar to the last time that they won a title, under a certain Jose Mourinho not so long ago.
Winning the title with the same formation with the same players, week-in week-out; Antonio Conte used just twenty one players in his entire season, the same number as Mourinho in his title winning season two years ago – if you discount two substitute appearances given to Andreas Christensen and Izzy Brown – further cementing the argument that in the competitive football environment, squad consistency is key.
Keep the same people fit and winning and you will win, which is amazing considering that it was only a few years ago that Alex Ferguson would regularly rotate between his four strikers and Tottenham, under then newly appointed Mauricio Pochettino, would rotate between nearly thirty different players.
Rotation has historically, always been considered a strength rather than a weakness, but Mourinho and Conte put forward rather compelling arguments for thinking otherwise. But that is where the similarities end, and this is where Conte must pick up rather, than resting on his laurels like Mourinho did.
Tottenham and Crystal Palace have shown this year that Conte’s squad and formation have weaknesses which can be exploited, and while Chelsea did falter in their charge to the title in the second half of the season, the fall in quality has not been as stark as Mourinho’s side two years ago.
After the 5-3 loss to Tottenham, Mourinho clamped down on his side completely, reverting back to what he did best, grinding out eye-wrenching 1-0’s and 2-1’s, “sexy football” and tiki-taka was replaced by its plain-Jane counterpart – score and defend.
Chelsea won the league that season with an eight point lead, having been top of the table virtually since the first matchday, which in turn, surrounded the club with a sense of arrogance, which was evident in the pre-season build-up to their disastrous title defense.
Mourinho insisted on only making like-for-like transfers, with the intention of keeping the first team squad more or less the same. Indeed, much has been written on Chelsea’s calamitous season after that, but the one recurring theme was that of stagnancy.
Chelsea had stayed at the same level, whereas sides around them continued to better themselves. Teams like Crystal Palace, West Ham United, Stoke City among others spent record amounts of money to improve themselves in the transfer window, the likes of Cabaye, Payet, Ogbonna joining them from top tier sides, helped in considerably reducing the gap between the top six and the rest.
Conte must avoid this sort of complacency at all costs, since this Chelsea avatar have a bit-part look about them, held together by his own spit and glue and the team’s desire to avenge themselves after last season.
Replacements for key players must be found, as Chelsea’s injury-free spree may not last forever. The extra games in Europe will take their toll on a paper-thin squad, and Conte will surely be licking his lips at the prospects of a quadruple.
With more silverware in mind, it will be close to impossible for him to continue the lack of rotation which has worked so well for him so far.
It worked well for Mourinho as well, but only as far as the league was concerned. Chelsea fans will recall the way an extremely tired-looking Chelsea capitulated against ten-man Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League, and Conte will look to point to that example, amongst others, when highlighting the need for additional investment in his end-of-season report.
So far, he seems to have gotten his wish. Besides potentially signing a new contract which would make him the highest-paid manager in the club’s history, Conte has also been promised nearly two hundred million pounds in transfers, and the names being mentioned will require that sort of investment.
Tiemoue Bakayoko from Monaco, James Rodriguez, Alexis Sanchez and along with replacements for both Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso have been mooted.
The transfer saga surrounding Diego Costa has to be concluded sooner rather than later, as the longer the transfer window continues, the harder and more expensive it will be to find someone to match the Spaniard, not just in terms of goal output, but sheer work-rate as well, such is Costa’s importance to the way Conte plays.
There are still a lot of questions surrounding Chelsea as they head into the summer transfer window, champions once again.
These questions should be wrapped up without delay, because rest assured, their total rivals will be waiting to take advantage of any complacency.