Antonio Conte's men remain the team to beat, and Arsenal will be desperate to maintain their recent winning record against the London rivals.
Chelsea manager Antonio Conte has plenty to thank Arsenal for despite recent defeats
English football has learned a lot about Antonio Conte via Arsenal, who the champions of England host at Stamford Bridge on Sunday afternoon.
It was Arsenal who pushed the Italian manager to his rock-bottom point, early in his Premier League career. It has been Arsenal, more than any English club, who have formed the sturdiest barrier between Conte’s Chelsea and a sweep of trophies during his short time in London.
All that puts a curious perspective on the rivalry between this century’s two dominant clubs from the capital.
Were it not for the underdog victory of Arsene Wenger’s team in the FA Cup final less than four months ago, and the win, on penalties, in the season’s curtain-raiser that is the Community Shield, a home win on Sunday could be breezily forecast.
Chelsea come into the fixture on the back of a 6-0 thrashing of Qarabag in the Uefa Champions League last Tuesday. Arsenal found themselves on Europe’s undercard last Thursday night, and, with the kick-off of their 3-1 Europa League win over Cologne delayed because of crowd problems, their time for rest and preparation was far shorter, by more than 48 hours, than their opponents’.
But then there are the precedents. No manager has outfoxed Conte in the past 13 months quite as regularly as Arsene Wenger, and perhaps none as dramatically.
Rewind 51 weeks to when Conte took his team to the Emirates on his sixth matchday as a Premier League manager. He was shell-shocked. He spoke softly after a fluent, swaggering Arsenal had zoomed to a 3-0 lead by half time about the scant alternatives he had before him. The only way up, said a gloomy Conte, was “hard work”.
What nobody, other than the Italian, suspected that day was that his Plan B was already being prototyped.
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That day at Arsenal has come to be recognised as modern Chelsea’s D-Day, the point at which the new manager abruptly completed his detached assessment of a squad that had in the previous 18 months gone from league winners to mid-table and set about reorganising.
It was the day the back four was abandoned, in favour of something more like 3-4-3, or 3-4-2-1. And it was the last time Chelsea failed to win a Premier League match in the whole of the rest of 2016.
By the time their 13-match winning run was completed, with Conte’s Wing-Back Wonders at the top of the table, back-threes had become a contagion across the Premier League. Tottenham Hotspur, the runners-up, had started using the formation more regularly. So had others.
Even Wenger, whose dogmas are both his forte and sometimes his Achilles heel, would end the season lining up Arsenal with three at the back, a shift in thinking he had not made in his previous 20 years at the club.
It would be an exaggeration to say Conte inspired English football’s top division to reformat, to think in terms of wing-backs and spare centre-halves. Yet to state that one afternoon at Arsenal shaped Conte’s Chelsea is not to overemphasise the importance of those 45 chastening first-half minutes at the Emirates nearly 12 months ago.
“It was really a bad game for us, they dominated us from the start to the end,” Conte recalled on Friday, his voice hoarse because of a throat infection. “After that game, I understood our team. We didn’t have balance. So we changed a lot of things, and then we won the league.”
And the copycats? “During the season I saw a lot teams change a lot of systems,” Conte notes.
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Chelsea’s prospects of retaining their title rest to a large extent on how honed Conte’s players are to his system. Although he made it plain over the summer he felt frustrated by the setbacks Chelsea faced in the transfer window, they are a stronger squad now than 12 months ago, and look more like a team built for Conte’s system.
He has, in the shape of Davide Zappacosta, the Italian bought from Torino, a right wing-back ready to arrow in crosses more reliably than the athletic Victor Moses, a winger restyled as a wing-back less than a year ago.
He has, in Alvaro Morata, a player who fits the description of target man in a more bespoke way than Diego Costa, the centre-forward with whom Conte has fallen out. Morata, signed from Real Madrid, has three goals so far in his first four Premier League matches, all headers.
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Arsenal’s defenders should expect to spend some time looking upwards at crosses at Stamford Bridge. And they should expect to be looking upwards above their own club’s name in the table at Chelsea’s for quite a while if their impressive recent record in these derbies is not maintained.