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Why Chelsea sit top of the Premier League table at Christmas

Friday 23rd December 2016
Chelsea are in excellent form, which has ensured the club's position at the summit of the Premier League over Christmas, and made them the big favourites to lift the title next May. Here is the explanation for Chelsea's outstanding results this season.
Just two seasons ago, Chelsea won the Premier League title and everything was looking positive at Stamford Bridge. Then, last season, the club went through a disastrous period: Chelsea began the campaign dismally, which saw them plummet to 16th in the table and manager Jose Mourinho lose his job a week before Christmas. Guus Hiddink returned to London to stabilise the club on a short-term basis, but for long-term success, Chelsea required a new manager to rejuvenate the side: in came the charismatic Antonio Conte.

Less than six months after taking charge of his first competitive game, Conte has already made a big impact at Chelsea. After victories in their opening three Premier League games, Chelsea suffered defeat against Liverpool, and humiliation at the Emirates, which left some big questions. However, Conte tackled the problem head-on - the Italian brought back a sense of togetherness among the squad, changed his side's formation, instilled belief and a winning mentality, and most importantly, he improved the performances of key players.

Since the 3-0 defeat to Arsenal at the end of September, Chelsea have produced a dramatic turnaround, which has seen them win an incredible 11 successive games, scoring 25 times in that period while keeping 9 clean sheets. Chelsea's winning streak made certain of top place in the Premier League table at Christmas, with a six-point advantage over their nearest rivals. These are the main reasons why Chelsea are leading the way.

Antonio Conte's impact

Confirmation of Conte's appointment as the new Chelsea manager came in April, but he didn't take over at the club until he fulfilled his duties with Italy at Euro 2016 - Italy performed admirably and progressed to the quarter-finals; Conte arrived in English football with a big reputation on the back of his work with the Italian national side. But Conte's stature as a manager began to rise long before his time in international management. While at Juventus, Conte successfully returned the club to former glory by guiding them to three consecutive Serie A titles.
With Manchester City's appointment of Pep Guardiola, and Jose Mourinho joining Manchester United, Conte's presence at Stamford Bridge went under the radar. But if Conte was overshadowed by higher-profile managers at the beginning of the season, times have quickly changed: the Italian coach is now outperforming all of his managerial counterparts. Words echoed by Guardiola himself, as reported by the Guardian regarding Conte and Chelsea, the Man City manager had this to say: 'Conte is without doubt, one of the best, maybe the best coach in the world right now. They (Chelsea) were contenders to win the Premier League from the beginning. Now, maybe more than before.'

After finishing 10th in the league last time around, Chelsea needed both a strong character and an outstanding manager to take them back to the top of English football. Conte delivers on both accounts. The Chelsea boss is accustomed to doing things his own way, a trait that is often seen in the very best managers; Conte isn't afraid to make big decisions: changing the formation, re-signing David Luiz, leaving out Cesc Fabregas, and giving an opportunity to Victor Moses, a player who doesn't possess the high-profile of his teammates.

Arguably, Conte's greatest quality is his ability to pass ideas onto his players; the Chelsea squad quickly adapted to their manager's tactical approach, which has produced astounding results. Immense enthusiasm, unrivalled passion, tactically astute, and a born winner - can all be used to describe Conte. The previous five months proves Chelsea are in excellent hands, as not only are they the Premier League leaders, but Conte is capable of maintaining the club's current standards.

A new formation

Ever since Mourinho arrived at Stamford bridge in 2004-05, Chelsea has deployed a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 system, but that was expected to change this season. Conte's renowned for using three at the back: noticeably for Italy and Juventus, where he had the luxury of selecting Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli. However, Conte initially stuck with Chelsea's regular formation, but he soon reverted to a more preferred system and style of play. When speaking about Chelsea's formation, Conte told the Express:

We started the season with another system because the idea in my mind was that I wanted to play with the 4-2-4. We switched with 4-3-3 and we played also in the same way like last year, 4-2-3-1, but I noticed in some circumstances we didn't have the right balance. We switched to the new system of 3-4-3 and I think this is a good fit for our squad because we have the strikers adapted for this system. I thought it would improve us offensively as well as defensively and we didn't lose our offensive situation.
Since the change of formation, Chelsea have been unbeatable. The 3-4-3 is working in all areas of the pitch - Thibaut Courtois is almost back to his best in goal; David Luiz, Gary Cahill, and Cesar Azpilicueta have formed an excellent defensive understanding; Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses provide width on both wings and both have proved crucial this season to Conte's way of playing, as they offer added protection at the back, with an attacking threat from wide areas; central midfield has seen a formidable partnership develop between N'Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic; Pedro, who continues to improve in a Chelsea shirt and Eden Hazard, both offer pace and creativity; while Diego Costa is the focal point of the attack and supplies a large majority of the goals.

Defensive stability

After conceding three times when they visited the Emirates, Chelsea's defence has since been breached just twice in their last 11 games. This season, Conte's side have conceded 11 in 17 games, giving them the best defensive record in the Premier League. One of the main factors for this is Matic's return to form, and the arrival of Kante - an undisputed warrior on a football pitch.
Matic was the most effective defensive midfielder in England two seasons ago when Chelsea were crowned champions; Kante took both titles from Matic last season: the Premier League and the best holding midfielder in English football. This campaign, the partnership between the two has been key to their side's early season success. Kante was integral to Leicester finishing top of the pile seven months ago; the Frenchman is now playing a similar role for Chelsea: Is Kante on his way to winning his second Premier League title in as many seasons?

There is also Chelsea's back three for teams to contend with. Despite doubts over his defensive ability, Luiz has played an important role this season. The Brazilian has fitted into Chelsea's backline effortlessly - defending responsibly, which has helped the club claim their place at the top of the table. Luiz's eccentricities are well-balanced by the reliability offered by Azpilicueta and Cahill in defence. The three have provided Chelsea with a solid base at the back. Behind them, is Courtois, who has returned to being one of the top goalkeepers in the Premier League - the Belgian's commanding presence and shot-stopping heroics have won his side valuable points.

Hazard and Costa combination

Title-winning sides usually have an attacking duo capable of turning games in their side's favour: Leicester had Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy - a talented provider and an accomplished finisher, and the season before, Chelsea called upon Hazard and Costa to do a similar job to take their team over the finishing line. In the opening five months of this campaign, Hazard and Costa are back to their title-winning form.
In attacking areas, Chelsea have vastly improved from last season; they have 35 goals this campaign, which makes them the fourth highest scorers in the league. Hazard has already scored eight times, which is double the amount he acquired last season, and he's now returning to the form that saw him win the PFA Player of the Year Award in 2014-15; by contributing regularly in attack, applying his creative spark, scoring sublime solo goals, and providing timely assists.

Costa's form has suffered over recent times, but he's also now back to his best. The Chelsea striker has eclipsed the 12 goals he scored last season, by finding the net 13 times this campaign; Costa is one of the deadliest strikers around and the current Premier League top goalscorer has proved it over the past five months. Chelsea are relying on Hazard and Costa to maintain their performances and fire them to the Premier League title. With these two superstars responsible for producing the magic up front, Chelsea have terrorised defences this season - scoring goals at crucial moments to win games, which is the hallmark of a side that goes on to become champions.
Danny Glendenning

Passions include reading, sport, and nights out with friends. A football fanatic whose writing career began in May 2016. Now 30 years old, lives in South Yorkshire - local team is Doncaster Rovers, although heart lies with Arsenal. Contributing editor for It's Round And It's White. Current claim to fame is an interview with Ron Atkinson. Always looking for work, either editing or writing. Contact via email: Dannysg1988@outlook.com. Or Twitter: @DannySG1988.



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