They may now be Premier League rivals, but Antonio Conte and Jose Mourinho have at least one thing in common: Chelsea. The two managerial titans have each been handed the sometimes poison chalice that is the Chelsea’s top job, but how have they each faced the challenge?
Although both managers have had millions of pounds at their disposal, the way they’ve gone about buying, selecting and positioning players has differed. Now, for some, the current regime might be a little shaky at times. However, the free-flowing style of football Conte has nurtured has not only proved effective, but highly entertaining. In fact, if we look at the stats, Chelsea has the second highest goals scored recorded in the Premier League after 11 games.
With 26 scored and just nine against, the Blues have soared to second in the league and, interestingly, second in the bookmakers’ odds table. From a previous price of 6/1, Sun Bets’ odds makers have recently reduced Chelsea’s betting line to 11/4.
Thanks to the 5-0 firecracker against Everton on 5th November, Chelsea now look like a real threat to Manchester City’s aspirations. In fact, even with City slipping in recent weeks, the odds still favour the Manchester side. With this being the case, there’s now an argument that Chelsea are the “value bet” at this stage in the season.
So, how have Chelsea managed to turn the odds in their favour? What secret formula has Conte put together in order to give the Stamford Bridge faithful something to sing about?
Smaller Defences Lead to Greater Gains
At the start of the 2016/2017 season the defensive side of Conte’s tactics were, for want of a better word, shocking. However, a move away from the traditional four men at the back method appears to have paid dividends. With three now doing the work of four, Chelsea have not only looked more assured at the back, but more confident going forward.
By freeing up a space in the defensive line, Conte seems to have inspired a new confidence in Luiz, Gary Cahill and Cesar Azpilicueta. Maybe it’s because they know there is more pressure on their shoulders, or maybe it’s because they have more space to work, the trio is now looking extremely strong.
Back in Mourinho’s day, four at the back with three and three ahead was the dominant strategy. Essentially basing the defensive line around John Terry’s physicality, Mourinho was able to bully attacking lines and shutdown any tricky offences. During the 2004/2005 season that strategy certainly proved effective. With just 15 goals against, Chelsea dominated the league.
Flexibility is Crucial
However, times change and such a rigid strategy is now more exploitable. Indeed, if we look at Manchester United, Mourinho has employed a similar strategy, and that’s resulted in 13 goals against after 11 games. Not only that, but United have only scored 16 in 11 which pales in comparison to the current Chelsea side’s 26.
Yes, it’s fair to say that Conte’s Chelsea have already conceded nine, but in contrast to City, Arsenal and Liverpool, that’s a small number. In fact, what this shows is that goals against aren’t as important as they once were. With more teams employing an attacking style, the best way to counter this dynamic is to attack rather than defend. Trying to absorb pressure for 90 minutes just isn’t possible, and that’s something Conte seems to be aware of.
Conte’s Counterattacking Suits the Modern Game
When it comes to attacking football, Conte’s Chelsea naturally has more freedom. With an extra man free to roam the middle portion of the park and lend a hand to either attack or defence, Chelsea are now more flexible than they once were. The end result, so far, is a counter attacking style of football that Paul Scholes believes is suited to winning the league.
Making comparisons with the 2015/2016 championship winning side from Leicester, Scholes believes the 3-4-3 strategy opens up more options and, therefore, makes it easier for Chelsea to catch teams on the break.
In contrast, Mourinho employed a much more rigid system. Although the general formation was 4-2-3-1, more often than not the team drifted into a 4-3-3 set-up which essentially loaded up the defence and watered down the attack. Of course, to build an empire you need a solid foundation, but it seems this reluctance to move away from four at the back ultimately cost Chelsea in later seasons.
A Sign of the Times
If you compare Mourinho’s first season at Chelsea with his last before his return, the goal difference is marked. During the 2004/2005 season, Chelsea won the league with a goal difference of +57. By 2006/2007 they finished second in the league with a +40 goal difference. To make matters worse, Chelsea scored just 64 compared to 72 during the same periods, which suggests the lack of flexibility was starting to hurt the side.
Now, it’s important to remember that the Premier League back then was different to the Premier League of today. Indeed, when all is said and done, both managers were (and are) extremely capable. However, what is clear is that Chelsea’s tactics of old just wouldn’t cut it today. So, while we may look back at Mourinho’s reign with fondness, it might not be a period we’d want to revisit should Conte find his position untenable in the coming months.
As the Premier League has evolved, flexibility and dynamism have become crucial and that, in a nutshell, is the main difference between Conte and Mourinho and, moreover, the reason the Blues are now the hot tip for the title.