Amid an 8-match winning run, Chelsea’s barren September, where they picked up only one point and slipped to defeats against Liverpool and Arsenal, seems like a long time ago.
“We didn’t have the right attitude from the first minute…we have to improve a lot”, was new manager Antonio Conte’s withering assessment of the 3-0 loss at Arsenal and the Italian would have been left thinking the size of the task he has inherited at Stamford Bridge was bigger than he initially thought.
Concerned by the lethargy displayed in the 1-2 defeat to Liverpool a week earlier and persuaded by Cesc Fabregas’s salvo in the midweek EFL Cup tie at Leicester that split the two games, Conte handed the Spaniard his first start of the season at the Emirates, the theory being that he would offer more dynamism and creativity to a midfield containing two holding players in N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic.
The idea was abandoned within 55 minutes when Fabregas was withdrawn and Conte reverted to the 3-4-3 system that had earned him so much success in Italy.
It gave birth to the run of eight straight wins that have turned Conte’s team into title challengers, with Matic and Kante both at the heart of the ominous upturn.
The tireless Kante has featured in every minute of Chelsea’s campaign so far but Matic has not been too far behind, missing only 32 minutes, as well as the win at Manchester City on Saturday due to a muscular injury, as Conte has sometimes seen fit to preserve the Serb’s long legs late on in matches.
He may have had to earlier on in the season; “Conte wants the midfielders to be very complete, to be physically strong,” was how Fabregas put it, but with Matic missing just one game since the humbling at Arsenal and Fabregas only making a single appearance, it shows which player has adjusted and responded best to the needs of their demanding coach.
Filling the creative void
More able than the Spaniard to do the defensive work, Matic has won the fourth most tackles (24) and made the second most interceptions (23) in the Chelsea squad, the Serb has also filled the creative void, creating 14 chances and chipping in with 6 assists, including the sumptuous through-ball he laid off for Eden Hazard to round off the 4-0 demolition of Manchester United, more than any of his team-mates.
Conte has also made effective use of the Serb’s imposing height at set-pieces, his near post flick-ons providing goals for Diego Costa in the 3-0 win over Leicester and the 5-0 thrashing of Everton.
The 28-year-old has been restored to the rampaging force he was in the title winning campaign of 2014-15 and together with Kante, nicknamed “the rat” by some team-mates for his ability to pop-up everywhere on the pitch, they have forged a rock-solid midfield that refuses to give much away.
Chelsea have only allowed the opposition an average 9.3 shots per game, a figure bettered only by Manchester City and Liverpool, and the run of 6 straight clean sheets prior to the win over Tottenham was perhaps as much down to the midfield blockade as it was the parsimony of Conte’s 3-man back-line.
“I have a little bit more freedom to get forward, as long as there is space” said Matic, “but when we defend I have to get back to help him”, giving an insight into the understanding the duo have quickly developed. It also helps that the Serb is familiar with Kante’s position and acknowledges the demands on his partner, enabling him to fill-in or offer supporting cover when needed.
“We are in a good way. We are improving as a team. Also individually, I feel that everyone is one step better than before and much better”, said Matic before his team’s recent win at Southampton and referring back to last October’s meeting between those two sides at Stamford Bridge, it is an understatement when applied to the Serb.
Matic suffered the ignominy of being substituted back off the pitch 28 minutes after coming on at half-time by a then under-fire Jose Mourinho, a fate the midfielder recently admitted “felt terrible”.
Now under the fresh enthusiasm of a coach who espouses a hard-work ethic, Matic has been rejuvenated, alongside the likes of Eden Hazard, Diego Costa, Pedro, Gary Cahill and even Victor Moses, on whom Conte has had a similar effect.
It has given justification to the Italian’s decision not to sell Matic- a player he described as “fantastic”– when Juventus were showing an interest back in the summer and when the Serb seemed dispensable after a miserable campaign when he fell behind John Obi-Mikel in the pecking order under Mourinho’s successor Guus Hiddink.
Fabregas may have stepped in capably in the superb 1-3 win at Manchester City on Saturday but Conte will bring Matic back to his line up as soon as he recovers for the stabilising influence he brings to the midfield.
Only Kante and Marcos Alonso have made more passes in the Chelsea squad than the Serb and as anybody who witnessed the way he strolled through midfield to provide Eden Hazard with his goal against Leicester will attest, he is bringing maturity and control to Conte’s team.
Radja no longer needed
The mooted £23 million interest in Roma’s Radja Nainggolan will now be dead in the water as Conte has found a balanced system and the perfect solution to his concerns about a lack of energy in midfield.
Matic has shown he can provide it as this time the beneficiary of one ruthless substitution, rather than a victim.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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