The debut installment of a brand new column about everything Chelsea-related titled “The Mind of Conte” by Charles Codo.
Following much excitement, speculation, and anticipation, Antonio Conte has finally coached his first games in the English Premier League, home against West Ham and away to Watford.
Following last season’s horror start, Chelsea fans will have been delighted with six points in the bag, two games into the season.
There is a variety of talking points following the two opening games, and here is what stood out to me.
High intensity vs West Ham
The level of intensity maintained by the men in blue throughout the majority of the West Ham game was impressive.
From the start of the match, Chelsea pressed their London rivals without the ball, and moved it very quickly when they were in possession.
The atmosphere at Stamford Bridge certainly helped, as Conte’s men displayed the aggressiveness and spirit they rarely showed last year.
Against Watford however, Chelsea seemed to only find similar levels of intensity in the last twenty five minutes or so of the game.
Improved defensive organization
As expected, N’Golo Kante is a superb addition to the team.
In possession he slots right in between the center backs to allow them to spread out, and push the fullbacks higher up the pitch.
In the defensive transition, Kante is invaluable in intercepting or recovering the ball. Around him, the other midfielders are also committed to defending as a unit.
Even though the back four is still vulnerable to the odd lapse of concentration, I can recall just a handful of clear chances conceded between the West Ham and Watford games.
With expected recruitment in the defensive area, and additional coaching from Conte, I expect this already improved unit to keep getting better.
Lack of clear-cut chances
As much as Chelsea looked comfortable in possession in their opening games, especially in the home game, they struggled to create clear cut chances.
West Ham and Watford were much more concerned with not conceding than scoring, and therefore defended quite deep and made it hard for the Blues to create chances around their box.
This is a concerning trend based on the first two games, and Conte will have to find a way to bring in more creativity to his team’s play, while maintaining his defensive organization.
Successful in-game tactical changes and smart substitutions
The major take away out of the first two games will undoubtedly be the winning tactical changes made by the Italian tactician.
In both games, he’s started with a 4-3-3 or 4-1-4-1 formation, and has switched to some variation of 4-4-2 in the latter stages, when chasing the game.
Against Watford, one goal down with thirty minutes to go, Conte moved Hazard from the left wing to a more central position, pushed Oscar to the right wing, and swapped Pedro from the right over to the left wing.
As a result, Hazard seemed to get on the ball more often and his influence on the game started increasing.
Around the 72nd minute, Conte would bring in Batshuayi for Oscar, having previously replaced Pedro with Moses, and Matic with Cesc.
At that point, Hazard would move to the right wing.
This tweak would allow him to stretch the game out with Moses and Hazard providing the width, while Diego and Batshuayi provided more of a challenge upfront to Watford’s three center backs.
About the 79th minute, Batshuayi intercepted the ball from a Watford throw-in, then made a clever run towards the box and exactly ten seconds later, he was inside the penalty area to pounce on a Eden Hazard shot deflected into his path by the Watford goalkeeper.
By then Chelsea looked much more like the team we saw against West Ham; playing with higher intensity, recovering the ball quickly and moving it at pace with a series of one touch passes.
This was in great part due to the introduction of Cesc Fabregas who is still the best passer in the squad.
Cesc’s introduction changed the game.
Against such a low and organized defensive block, Chelsea’s best chance was always to skip the patient build up and execute quick and direct transitions from the back, straight into Watford’s half.
Under such circumstances, Fabregas is Chelsea’s best asset as he possesses the vision to see and the skills to execute this sort of passes.
He intercepted the ball in front of his defense and one touch later, sent Diego Costa on his way to defeating the opposing goal keeper.
Watford were undone as they had no time to reorganize their defensive unit; they were undone by quick transition football, which had been lacking up to the point Cesc Fabregas was introduced.
From the first two games, we’ve seen the type of changes Conte is trying to implement.
Chelsea played a more organized game, building on a stronger defensive unit. They attempted to play the game at a high tempo, though that is still a work in progress.
Conte has tactically bested his opponents with in-game changes which have earned the team six points in the dying minutes.
Finally, Cesc Fabregas has reminded us that his outstanding vision and passing ability allows us to play direct football and transition quickly from defense to offense; the sort of football that gets the best out of Diego Costa.
Conte relied on Bonucci and Pirlo to fill this role at Juve; Cesc can perform a similar job for him and provide further tactical flexibility for Antonio to consider.
Written by Charles Codo
Follow Charles on Twitter @soccerCrave
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