This article was first published on The Huffington Post (UK Edition) here.
If there was one message that rose above all the others after the engaging and edgy Premier League encounter between Tottenham Hotspurs and Chelsea at Wembley, it was that despite all the doomsayers pronouncements about disharmony and dejection at Stamford Bridge, the rest of the teams in the league would have to work desperately hard to take the trophy off Chelsea’s hands.
Chelsea’s defence organiser and captain Gary Cahill, midfield creator Cesc Fabregas and stand-alone genius Eden Hazard, were all missing – while new signing Tiemoue Bakayoko and last year’s hero Pedro were both far from 100% fit. Add to that a new boy up front, a new boy in the back three, and an old boy in a new position in the midfield – and you know why playing the last year’s runners-up was always going to be an exercise of having the back against the wall for Chelsea.
But that didn’t matter in the end. Because Chelsea proved to have something that only the real champions have – self-belief, tenacity, and an enormous sense of timing.
They went forward in the first seven or eight minutes and should have been a goal up if Morata had not missed a sitter by heading out a sublime cross by César Azpilicueta. Then, as they realised that Spurs were getting into the game, they decided to ‘allow their opponents to come to them’. And when got their second opportunity, they made the most of it with the man of the match Marcos Alonso scoring the first goal of the match via a sublime, world-class free kick. And then it was back in the trenches, till Mitchy Batshuayi scored an unfortunate own goal. With barely any time left, Chelsea went out again, got lucky because of first Hugo Lloris’ unfathomable throw straight down the middle and then bungling it decisively by letting Alonso’s shot from an angle under him.
That play was Chelsea manager Antonio Conte’s well thought-out switch to 3-5-2(Willian just behind Morata) from the last year’s 3-4-3.
The Italian had set up what is known as the catenaccio tactical system. In Italian, catenaccio means ‘door-bolt’, thereby implying closing any opportunities for the opponent to score. Well, one can argue that is another name for ‘Mourinho’s Parked Bus’. The difference is that in the case of Mourinho, it was a natural style for him for all seasons whereas Conte’s approach was a dire tactical response to a dire situation.
Conte used the catenaccio tactical system like most Italian teams are known (accused?) to use it – a counter-attacking option wherein the team sits back, hopes to get one or two chances to invade the opponent’s box, make use of the chances, and then apply the ‘door-bolt’ to things.
Mitchy almost spoiled it. But Alonso made sure that in the end, it worked out precisely as planned.
In other words, injuries, suspensions, and depleted squad size or not, Conte is not only aware of and open to a variety of tactical options but also has the ability to quickly drill them decisively into a team that has its own share of impetuous personalities. This, again, is something that only the real champions have in them.
The game on Sunday, the first-ever league game at the national stadium, typified the recent abrasive clashes between the London rivals. A red card looked round the corner at many stages of the match – with my Blues fans taking to social media to ask how Jan Vertonghen’s tackle on Victor Moses was any different from the one that saw Chelsea captain get a straight red in the match against Burnley. But it was amply clear to viewers that Chelsea players seemed to be under strict instructions from Conte to avoid getting a red fourth match in the running.
Just as one defeat was not the end of the world, one victory is not a panacea for Chelsea’s problems. The questions remain: Would Morata be able to fill the big shoes of Diego Costa? And hey, when is that saga going to end – before it starts affecting the dressing room in a major way? Is Bakayoko really an upgrade on Nemanja Matic? Where are the defence backups?
But if the victory at Wembley is anything go by, we can be sure that Chelsea are the champions of England not because of ideal circumstances of the previous season. They are champions because they can fight to win despite everything. And that’s why Antonio Conte’s Chelsea remains the team to beat.