If you could earmark one game that proved to be the differential in what eventually has become a romp to the Premier League title for Chelsea, which one would it be?
There was the 4-0 thumping of Manchester United, who were still among the title contenders, on October 23. It was also Jose Mourinho’s return to Stamford Bridge, and so the symbolism of the dawn of a new era was very much there.
The 3-1 win away at Manchester City on December 3, against a side that were the favourites for the title, was also massive. This was especially true coming at the back of a 2-1 win against Spurs. Those two back-to-back wins made Chelsea the favourites for the league.
A hard fought draw against Liverpool (January 31), which Antonio Conte rates as one of the team’s top moments of the season, was followed by a 3-1 win against Arsenal (February 4), which made the league title Chelsea’s to lose and reduced the 2-0 defeat at Spurs a month back to a distant memory.
Following April defeats against Crystal Palace and Manchester United, and Spurs’ resurgence at the same time, we did (briefly) have a title race on our hands heading into the final month. But it was short lived. Chelsea’s 3-0 away win at Everton on April 30 was the one that practically wrapped up the title for the Blues.
Even so, despite all the above-mentioned results that decided the league for Chelsea, the one game that probably made more difference than any other was one that Conte’s side lost.
With half of Chelsea’s game away to Arsenal in September gone, Conte switched to his 3-4-3 formation, which he would persist with for the rest of the season – and which others would try to imitate as well. Chelsea lost the game at Arsenal 3-0, but the back three, and the wingbacks, remained. It was the defeat at Arsenal that laid the foundation of the Chelsea team that would eventually become the champions of England.
John Terry, Branislav Ivanovic, Oscar and John Obi Mikel never started a league game for Chelsea again after that defeat. Three of those are already out of Chelsea, and longtime skipper Terry is leaving this summer. Conte clearly wasn’t going to go by reputations that certain players had formed under Mourinho.
The defeat against Arsenal started a record 13-match winning streak for Chelsea that was broken by Spurs on January 4. Chelsea have been top of the table since early November, their 11th league game, when they battered Everton 5-0 at Goodison Park.
The manpower for the surge following the defeat at Arsenal was finalised late during the summer transfer window when David Luiz and Marcos Alonso were signed by Chelsea. The former’s return raised quite a few eyebrows and price tags for both were scrutinised. The £23million for Alonso paid Fiorentina now seems like a bargain, with the Spaniard being an absolute revelation this year. Chelsea could not have played the 3-5-2 without either, and Luiz in particular has been the backbone of Conte’s formational superstructure.
The signing that perhaps had an even bigger influence on the title winning side was that of N’Golo Kante. His peers and football writers do believe so, with Kante winning the PFA Player of the Year and the FWA Footballer of the Year. He has now won back to back league titles for two sides that were on the brink of relegation, and in mid-table mediocrity, respectively.
Another important change was replacing Christophe Lollichon with Gianluca Spinelli as the goalkeeping coach, which convinced Thibaut Courtois to stay at the club and eventually raise his own performance level as well.
With the skeleton of the side in place, Conte left it to the trio of Pedro, Eden Hazard and Diego Costa to do the damage at the other end. In the 13-match winning run for Chelsea, Hazard scored seven in 10 games. The new formation meant that a rejuvenated Hazard showed up for Chelsea, after a remarkably anonymous season for him last year.
Chelsea are the Premier League champions for the fifth time, a tally that is only topped by Manchester United. They have been the most decorated club in England, in terms of overall silverware, since Roman Abromovic took over the club in 2003. They have the FA Cup to look forward to as well, where they can add to the tally.
With Manchester United’s season resting on the Europa League final, Manchester City and Liverpool all set to finish trophy-less, and Arsenal on the verge of missing out on Champions League football for the first time in two decades, all of Chelsea’s customary rivals are faltering just as the Blues have put together a juggernaut of a season.
Spurs are possibly the only other side in the top six that could be positive about their season. In this situation, Conte has the chance to carve out an era of dominance in England and put Chelsea back in contention in Europe.
No side has successfully defended the Premier League title since Manchester United in 2009. Chelsea should expect a six-pronged race next year as they look to establish themselves as the team to beat in England.