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BPL Notebook Matchday 6: Antonio Conte’s Chelsea receive a humbling reality check

27 Sep

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Welcome to the Premier League, Antonio Conte, the honeymoon is officially over.

Three wins from the opening three games presented room for optimism, but Conte’s Blues remain win-less in league play since the international break. The talks of a possible title challenge have halted, and fears of last year’s nightmare sits in the minds of Chelsea fans across the world, and most certainly the players.

Can you blame them?

Apart from the departure of Jose Mourinho and the summer signing of N’Golo Kante, Chelsea’s XI is identical to last year’s side that produced the worst title defence in Premier League history with a tenth place finish. Very little has changed in personnel, and Conte’s task of returning this group of players into champions appears to be an insurmountable task.

Where Mourinho failed, Conte is now asked to succeed. David Luiz, Michy Batshuayi and Kante’s arrivals wouldn’t be classified as a great transfer window when compared to their title rivals, but a combination of athleticism, dynamism and youth doesn’t hurt a Chelsea side that psychologically crumbled during tribulation last year.

The Blues were convincing winners against a travelling Bournemouth side, and late goals against West Ham and Watford suggested that during the rough times Conte was capable of altering his tactics to gain a result. Where pre-season title favourites Manchester City and Manchester United were also perfect, Chelsea were keeping pace via the rejuvenated Diego Costa and a remarkable ball winner in Kante, who effortlessly protected the back-four.

Oddly enough, Chelsea produced their best performance of the season en route to their first blip of the season. The Blues flabbergasted Swansea at the Liberty Stadium for lengthy spells of their 2-2 draw, but several spurned opportunities from Eden Hazard and Diego Costa proved costly – despite the latter scoring two goals and earning a point from a losing position.

Thibaut Courtois conceding a penalty tipped the momentum in Swansea’s favour, but Gary Cahill’s mental lapse – despite being fouled in the process – gifted Leroy Fer a goal that’s practically inflicted a blow to Chelsea’s back-line. Perhaps John Terry’s injury shouldn’t be downplayed, but though the Chelsea’s captain’s absence deprives Conte an organizing leader at the back, it isn’t a legitimate excuse for the Blues’ current woes.

Liverpool and Arsenal were always going to provide a fair assessment of Chelsea’s progress under Conte, and the most in-form teams in the league – apart from Manchester City – comfortably dominated the West London side in every aspect. Liverpool came to Stamford Bridge and overloaded central areas to produce arguably the best first half performance of the season – to be frank, 2-1 was flattered Conte’s side.

More so, the manner in which Chelsea defended and conceded was shocking. They sat deep in a 4-5-1 and were reluctant to apply pressure in midfield. Jordan Henderson controlled the match from a deeper position – scoring an unbelievable goal in the process – whereas the attacking quartet constantly interchanged positions to overwhelm Nemanja Matic and Kante. Still, Dejan Lovren’s opener illustrated the issues Chelsea still encounter at the back: Coutinho’s whipped ball into the box met three unmarked Liverpool players at the far post, and the Croatian’s inch-perfect side-foot volley flew past Courtois.

The Blues were no better at the Emirates, but once again, a defensive individual mistake proved decisive. Alexis Sanchez nicked possession from Cahill, and charged into a 1v1 break with Courtois, before chipping the ball over the Belgian keeper. Chelsea trailed within the opening 10 minutes and shortly afterwards Arsenal inflicted further damage.

This time it was Hazard who failed to fulfill his defensive duties, as Hector Bellerin charged beyond the Belgian to receive Alex Iwobi’s pass in half space and the Arsenal right-back’s low cross met an unmarked Walcott to double the Gunners’ lead. A terrific counter-attack inspired by Mesut Ozil bamboozled Kante and witnessed the German combine with Alexis to put the match out of reach.

“We started this game in a bad way, and from the first minute” said Conte.

“This is very strange because Arsenal against Chelsea is a massive game,” he continued, “and when we play this type of game against a very good team like Arsenal, you must stay concentrated from the first minute and this today did not happen.”

Nonetheless, Conte’s men persisted on sitting off the opposition with neither Cesc Fabregas – who played 120 minutes midweek and probably shouldn’t have started despite scoring two goals – and Matic eager to press Santi Cazorla and Francis Coquelin. This was equally further evidence that Fabregas shouldn’t operate as a shuttler in Chelsea’s midfield trio, as Oscar’s tenacity and work-rate was dearly missed.

Chelsea were outclassed for the second consecutive week, and though they moved into key positions via Hazard and Willian, Conte’s men lacked an end product in the final third. Diego Costa was positive in spurts, but Shkodran Mustafi and Laurent Koscielny’s intent to tightly mark and freely foul the Spanish international limited the Chelsea’s striker’s threat.

Fabregas failed to link midfield and attack with his rushed forward passes, and additional poor outings from Cahill and Branislav Ivanovic are also responsible for Chelsea’s stagnation – it’s simply worrying that David Luiz has been Chelsea’s best defensive player over the past two weeks. Another underwhelming transfer window has placed a Chelsea manager in a difficult predicament as the current crop of defenders and midfielders simply aren’t good enough.

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The verdict is out on this Chelsea side, and the issues are much bigger than the manager. John Terry and Kurt Zouma’s eventual return should boost the Blues back-line, but Conte’s determination to lure Leonardo Bonucci and Kalidou Koulibaly over the summer suddenly makes sense.

Chelsea aren’t in a crisis, and a top four finish still remains attainable given the talent in the squad, but individual mistakes and poor defensive work ethic from Hazard and Fabregas won’t do Conte any favours. We may not see the best from this Chelsea side until Conte brings in his own players, but for once, Roman Abramovich mustn’t’ allow mediocre displays seal the fate of another top manager.

Rooney-less United make statement

The most convincing Manchester United victory during the briefly lived Jose Mourinho era involved another brutal defeat for the reigning Premier League champions and the Red Devils captain watching from the bench. United claimed maximum points within the opening 45 minutes by capitalizing on Leicester’s poor set-piece defending by scoring four goals in quick succession.

Although Leicester failed to pose a significant threat on both ends, the quick combination passes and constant overloads on both flanks were positive improvements to United’s open-play buildup. Paul Pogba enjoyed his best game in a United shirt, scoring his first goal since joining the club, and stepping into free space – with Leicester defenders reluctant to press the Frenchman – to test Ron-Robert Zieler on a few occasions.

United scored four goals in 20 minutes, and while their overall play was mesmerizing at times – the second goal witnessed every United player touch the ball prior to Juan Mata’s superb finish – it’s key to note that they exploited Leicester’s set-piece defending deficiencies. It was a Mourinho-esque win, and though the Portuguese manager downplayed his pleasure, it’s a step in the right direction.

Daley Blind’s set-piece deliveries were crucial, Antonio Valencia continues to impress with his offensive mindset at right-back, and though Ander Herrera isn’t an ideal partner for Pogba in a midfield two, the Spaniard’s tenacity, ball retention skills and incisive passing will help United unravel deep defensive lines.

Ranieri’s switch to a 4-1-4-1 prevented United from increasing their lead, as his midfield applied improved pressure in central areas, but the match was won by half-time. United were much sharper and fluid when they pushed men forward, and the constant overloads in attacking zones was refreshing.

Though Rooney can still play a role in United’s title aspirations, perhaps this was evidence that Mourinho’s best XI doesn’t require his captain.

City overcome adversity at the Liberty Stadium

Manchester City maintained their perfect start to the Pep Guardiola era, and once again the Spaniard offered a variation of a 4-1-4-1 that posed issues for Swansea. However, the hosts weren’t completely outplayed here, and relied on Fernando Llorente’s aerial threat to unease City’s centre-back partnership and the diminutive Claudio Bravo.

Llorente capitalized on Bacary Sagna’s slip to smash a superb effort past Bravo, but his hold up play and physical presence pegged City’s centre-backs deeper into their half. The Spaniard was an evident reference point for the Swansea attack, but the hosts failed to maximize the striker’s aerial threat throughout the 90 minutes.

Nevertheless, Guardiola’s tactical tweaks also played a decisive role in the final outcome. Raheem Sterling maintained width on the left, while Sagna pushed higher up the pitch on the right to ensure City stretched the pitch. Aleksandar Kolarov slipped into a narrow position – basically forming a back three – when Fernandinho pushed forward, and Sagna’s wide role enabled Kevin De Bruyne to receive passes in pockets of space between the lines.

It was Sagna’s cross that led to Aguero’s opener, and frankly De Bruyne’s rare profligate passing and finishing around the box prevented a City onslaught. Yet even when Swansea appeared capable of a possible fight-back with their high-pressing, Guardiola tinkered with his side’s shape by moving De Bruyne central and pushing David Silva to the left.

De Bruyne grew in prominence following the alteration, and began to receive service behind Leon Britton before charging towards the Swansea goal. The Belgian won the penalty that led to Aguero’s winner, and Sterling’s impressive counter-attacking run ensured City remain perfect under Guardiola.

There was general interest regarding Guardiola’s approach without Nolito, and with De Bruyne now likely to be sidelined for a few weeks, the Spaniard will be tasked with identifying another successful attacking solution. Still, despite being only six games into the season, it’s difficult to declare anyone other than City as title favourites.

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Time to take Klopp’s Liverpool seriously after steamrolling Hull City?

The pressure was on Liverpool to build on their terrific performance at Stamford Bridge against Mike Phelan’s travelling Hull City side, and Jurgen Klopp’s men passed their test with flying colours. Their passing and movement was fluid, the pressing was cohesive, and the finishing around the box was ruthlessly efficient.

The Reds are beginning to look like a Klopp side.

From the opening whistle, Hull City dropped into a 4-5-1 with the midfield and defensive bank within close proximity to limit space between the lines. But Abel Hernandez’s inability to get close to Jordan Henderson allowed the Liverpool captain the freedom to dictate the tempo of the match from deeper positions. With Hull dropping deeper towards their box, Hernandez was equally isolated upfront, and the away side were unable to launch counter-attacks due to Liverpool’s dynamic gegenpressing.

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James Milner constantly stormed beyond Robert Snodgrass and was a useful outlet at left-back, meanwhile the Hull midfield couldn’t cope with Liverpool’s attacking quartet’s movement between the lines. Liverpool players continuously popped up into space at the edge of the box for pull-backs, whereas Lallana operated in half-spaces and Firmino occasionally drifted wide to encourage forward runs.

Ultimately, Ahmed Elmohamady’s dismissal for a handball on the goal-line sealed Hull’s fate. They became a 4-5-0 with no real outlet upfront, and were forced to cope with Liverpool’s relentless attack throughout. At the moment, there may not be a team in better form than Klopp’s Reds, and if they can maintain performance levels of this quality, they will be a difficult team to beat this season.

Son pushing for permanent starting role at Spurs

Sometimes injuries can be a blessing in disguise. Son Heung-min is justifying that notion and was once again the catalyst in a Spurs victory. With Eric Dier and Moussa Dembele unavailable, Son slid into the Spurs attacking trio, while Dele Alli operated alongside Christian Eriksen ahead of Victor Wanyama.

Although Moussa Sissoko struggled from the right, Middlesbrough’s midfield couldn’t cope with Eriksen or Alli’s movement in the final third, whereas Son’s penetrative runs from the left provided guile. Spurs’ opener displayed their attacking approach vividly: Victor Janssen pegged the hosts’ centre-backs deep with his back-to-goal holdup play, which attracted Adam Clayton to the ball, thus enabling Son to run onto his layoff and place his shot past Victor Valdes.

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Son’s second was even better as the South Korean international evaded two challenges near the edge of the box and curled an unstoppable into the far post to double Spurs’ lead. Spurs were dominant in the opening period, combining their intense pressing to deprive the hosts an outlet forward, while their quick passing flustered Aitor Karanka’s men.

Middlesbrough failed to cope with Spurs’ pressing and constantly conceded possession in their half. On the other hand, Gaston Ramirez was comfortably negated by the presence of Victor Wanyama ahead of the back four. The second half introduction of Adama Traore was promising but his poor final ball negated the substitute’s overall threat.

Ben Gibson’s second half goal provided the host’s a lifeline, yet their intention to push forward for a winner left vacant space for Eriksen and Alli to exploit, but similar to Traore, their production in the final third was underwhelming. Still, the several absentees missing didn’t affect Spurs balance from an attacking sense, as Son presents Mauricio Pochettino with future selection issues.

Tadic developing into the main man at St. Mary’s

The summer departures of Ronald Koeman, Graziano Pelle and Sadio Mane put Southampton’s future in jeopardy. Their main goal-scorer, best player, and top manager moved onto new challenges, leaving many to question whether Claude Puel could bring success to the Saints.

Southampton’s trip to West Ham showcased both sides’ limitations around the box during the opening 40 minutes, but the two best performers of the match combined to steer the away side into the lead with the game’s first shot on target. Tadic’s outwards run into the left channel saw Ryan Bertrand run beyond Antonio to receive the Serbian’s pass, and subsequently assist Charlie Austin’s opener.

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It was a brilliant move that highlighted Bertrand’s threat from left-back due to Antonio’s lack of discipline, and Tadic’s guile in a free role behind Austin and Nathan Redmond. West Ham, however, were dismal going forward: Dimitri Payet failed to influence the match from the right, while Simone Zaza was isolated upfront.

Bilic’s attempt at a comeback resulted in Sofiane Feghouli replacing Miguel Lanzini and pushing Payet into a central role. Nonetheless, Antonio’s movement to the opposite flank created space for Cedric Soares to exploit throughout the second half. Tadic and Soares combined in the box minutes into the second half but an impressive Adrian save kept West Ham alive.

As the match wore on, Bilic’s men also succumbed to Southampton’s counter-pressing which inevitably led to Tadic’s goal. Cheikhou Kouyate was dispossessed near his box and Redmond’s pass into Austin saw the striker initially play in the advancing Tadic, who coolly rounded Adrian and doubled Southampton’s lead.

Puel’s approach worked brilliantly as Southampton outworked and outplayed the hosts courtesy of getting the full-backs beyond Antonio and Tadic’s ability to receive the ball behind the West Ham midfield on numerous occasions. With competent passers and diligent frontmen leading the line, Tadic may finally receive the freedom to maximize his creative talent.

Results

Manchester United 4-1 Leicester City, Bournemouth 1-0 Everton, Stoke City 1-1 West Brom, Middlesbrough 1-2 Spurs, Liverpool 5-1 Hull City, Swansea City 1-3 Manchester City, Sunderland 2-3 Crystal Palace, Arsenal 0-3 Chelsea, West Ham 0-3 Southampton, Burnley 2-0 Watford

Weekend Stats

  • Dimitri Payet has had more shots (15) in the Premier League without scoring than any other player so far this season.
  • Since his debut (Aug 2014), Charlie Austin has scored as many Premier League goals as Wayne Rooney (21), despite playing 20 games fewer.
  • Alexis Sanchez’s scored 47 goals in his 100 appearances for Arsenal one fewer than Thierry Henry (48) in his first 100 appearances for the club.
  • Son Heung-Min has already equaled his Premier League goal tally from 2015-16 in just three appearances this season (4).
  • Since the start of 2015-16, James Milner has been involved in 20 league goals for Liverpool (8 goals, 12 assists).

Stats provided by OPTA

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Posted by on September 27, 2016 in Published Work

 

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