Date: 12 May 2017 16:58
Antonio Conte has delivered the second title in three seasons at Stamford Bridge but his team had a unique advantage unavailable to other competitors
Well done to Chelsea for winning the Premier League. Well done to Antonio Conte on securing the title in his first season as manager. That – while not a unique achievement – is more than most have done. To come into a new league and hold the lead in a title race from matchday 12 to 38 is a stunning feat.
Carlo Ancelotti won it in his first season but found himself out of a job just a year later for failing to uphold Roman Abramovich’s Champions League expectations. That is something Conte has not had to worry about, given the mess Jose Mourinho made the season before, but the Italian had better take care in order to avoid the fate that befell his compatriot and title-winning predecessor Claudio Ranieri.
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Fighting on more than one front was too much for him and his players, and his removal was the single-biggest factor in Leicester’s escape from relegation. Nobody is suggesting that Chelsea will be in a relegation scrap next season but Conte has got to recognise that this title was won in unusual circumstances, given that all his rivals had much more football to play. His work should not be judged on one season alone; tougher examinations are to come.
This season, Conte and his players set the standard for challengers to follow and they couldn’t keep up. A run of 13 fixtures undefeated – 39 points out of 39 – provided the crucial acceleration for the London club until their defeat by Tottenham in January. Chelsea might well have dropped 10 of their next 39 points but – Tottenham aside – no one could come within touching distance.
Over the course of 38 matches, the best team wins the league; Chelsea are deserving of that status this season and deserving of praise for the manner in which they sorted themselves out following the conclusion of Mourinho’s tumultuous second spell. Underperforming players like Eden Hazard, Pedro Rodriguez and Diego Costa were leaner and meaner under Conte. More was expected of them and they delivered.
Conte found a system which all his key players liked and adhered to. The three-man backline has given Chelsea balance, allowed David Luiz to flourish when in possession and given the title winners a devastating decisiveness on the counter-attack. He had to rip up his initial framework after a 2-1 loss to Liverpool and a 3-0 defeat to Arsenal left them sixth in the table. He had the advantage here over all his title rivals.
Chelsea mostly played one game a week all season and so Conte has had plenty of time to work on not only individual game plans but an overall strategy for his team to utilise throughout the season.
Ask any Premier League manager operating at the top end and they’ll tell you that there is very little opportunity to conduct detailed tactical work throughout an entire campaign. With games coming every three or four days, all a manager can do at training is count the fit bodies and work as best he can game by game.
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Conte, meanwhile, could prepare for league matches in an ideal way; enough rest at the start of the week and plenty of contact with his players on the training field during the second half. That gave his side a crucial edge. His players were fitter and better prepared than the competition for large chunks of the season.
The laboured, title-clinching 1-0 at West Brom was only Chelsea’s 45th match this term. Not one – obviously - has taken them out of England. Tottenham, by contrast, have already played 50 games, including eight in European competition. Manchester City have played 54 and their competitive season began in July in the Champions League qualifiers. Manchester United have had 61 games, with trips taken to Ukraine and Russia among others.
Spurs only managed eight points from the six league matches they played following Champions League group stage fixtures. That was the same for Manchester City. There is no disputing the fact that more matches and more travel took its toll on Chelsea’s counterparts – especially during the time of their record-breaking 13-game winning streak.
Because their players didn’t have to play as many games, Chelsea suffered far fewer enforced absences than the other top clubs. None of their regular starters were unavailable for any more than two games through injury or suspension. They had a full complement most weeks with, Conte clearly favouring his ideal XI plus Cesc Fabregas and Willian all season long.
Other clubs have had to shuffle the pack week to week. Consider Tottenham, who were without Toby Alderweireld for matches in which they dropped points to Bournemouth, Arsenal and Chelsea. They could not count on Jan Vertonghen for lost points against Manchester City, Sunderland and Liverpool. Danny Rose has missed half the season through injury.
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Harry Kane was unavailable as Mauricio Pochettino’s men stumbled against West Brom, Bournemouth and Leicester. No one is saying Spurs would definitely have won these games had those players been involved but it’s the kind of question than Chelsea did not have to answer.
Around the rest of the top six many more important players were unavailable for large stretches. Philippe Coutinho, Jordan Henderson and Sadio Mane have missed many matches for Liverpool. Arsenal were forced to play their third-choice goalkeeper in the recent defeat to Crystal Palace, while Shkodran Mustafi and Mesut Ozil have missed important games too which Arsenal have failed to pick up points.
It’s easier to count how many players have been available for Manchester United this season than those who were injured. They’ve been stretched to the limit.
Manchester City have not had it as bad but still could not count on new signing Ilkay Gundogan for most of the season while fellow new arrival Gabriel Jesus was also absent not long after making his debut. Vincent Kompany has just got back in the team while Sergio Aguero has struggled with his discipline leading to suspensions.
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There is an emerging trend in the Premier League. Teams without Champions League football are finding it easier to eke out title runs. Liverpool – in 2014 – would have won but for Steven Gerrard’s slip. Leicester came from nowhere last year to win it, while the team that finished 10th last season have shot up the table this time around. That is no coincidence.
It is a squad game, of course, but not for Chelsea. That will be the big test next season. Conte's side are worthy of their praise but when the playing field is levelled, it will be a different game altogether.