Saturday, May 13, 2017

Chelsea Greatly Win EPL Title

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Chelsea Greatly Win EPL Title

With a 1-0 win over West Brom on Friday, Chelsea clinched the English Premier League title, the club's sixth top division title in history. It's the culmination of a roller coaster two years in West London. The Blues won the title in 2015, fell to 10th and saw Jose Mourinho fired as manager in 2016, then hired Antonio Conte and won the title once again this season.

Typically, a jump from 10th to first in the Premier League would be a shocking turn of events. But Chelsea is not a typical club, and Conte not a typical manager.

Before the season, the ballyhooed arrival of Pep Guardiola at Manchester City and the summer spending spree by Mourinho at his new club, Manchester United, supposedly signaled a duel for the title between the two giants. But that line of thinking guilthy discounted the caliber of player left over from the Mourinho era and the managerial mastermind that is Conte.

Conte was the perfect hire for the Blues, his credentials perfectly suited for the task ahead. Starting in 2010, he coached Juventus back to Italian dominance and set them on the path toward success with his tactical genius, commitment to a particular philosophy and the ability to get his players to commit to that philosophy. While Chelsea's fall was never as bad as Juve's, a manager who could restore a club in crisis was exactly what the Blues needed.

Conte brought that same genius to his system with him to London. Through fantastic management, tactics superior to his counterparts, and a bit of luck via Chelsea's disastrous 2016 campaign, Conte was able to return Chelsea to the top of the Premier League, and make it look easy.

The strangest thing about Chelsea's fall from grace in 2016 was the bonkers amount of talent on the roster. It didn't make sense that Chelsea could only manage 10th in the table. It became clear that Mourinho, or rather the relationship between the players and Mourinho, was the problem when he was sacked and the club saw an immediate uptick under Guus Hiddink. At that point, though, it was far too late.

It was clear that any new face would be an upgrade from Mourinho, but Conte went above and beyond what was expected. Not only did he restore the team spirit, he built upon it. Whereas the 2016 edition of Chelsea was a group of individual stars, the 2017 edition was a team that worked beautifully in chorus.

The funny thing is, Conte built this cohesion the same way Mourinho did with his title-winning sides. Both managers believe in giving specific, strict instructions to their players. If every player knows his role and plays it, you're going to have a good shot at winning. So why did Conte succeed where Mourinho eventually failed? It could be that the squad simply needed a new voice to tell them the same message.

But believing Conte won by being Not-Mourinho sells his managerial acumen short. Conte is perhaps the best X's and O's coach in the world, and he showed it this season. When the year began, Conte attempted to adapt his style to England, running four defenders instead of three. The move backfired, and Chelsea lost twice in the first month or so of the season.

So Conte dropped the notion of adapting to England, and instead made England adapt to him. He switched to the three-man back following a 3-0 lost to Arsenal in September. That move was the impetus of a Premier League record 13-match winning streak that lasted until January. Conte's system confounded managers who weren't accustomed to anything like it in the English game. It took months for teams to figure out a way to stop it. By the time they did, Chelsea already had one hand on the title trophy.

(Just to show how much influence Conte has had over English soccer in just a few month, in a bid to salvage something from this season, Arsenal's Arsene Wenger, a manager who has stuck with the same general system and formation for nearly a decade, has started using a three-man defense.)

But Conte telling players their roles did not divine a title for Chelsea. Those players had to go out and execute.

The most integral piece of Chelsea's success was defensive midfielder N'Golo Kante. His steel in the midfield was a large part of Leicester's run to the title in 2016, just as it was a large part of Chelsea's this year. With a solid backline, Chelsea needed a destroyer who could be the last line between the attack and defense. Kante dicated games. He's a twofer who can keep the opposition from penetrating too far and start attacks by distributing from deep in the midfield. He's been the most valuable player in England two years running.

On the attacking end, Chelsea featured even more talent. Eden Hazard rebounded from scoring only four goals in 2016 with 15 in 2017. Diego Costa dropped the insufferable whiner routine (mostly) and scored 20. Pedro finally began to play the way he played during his heyday at Barcelona. Willian dropped free kick bombs any time the Blues got a chance near the box. Cesc Fabregas finally found his touch again as a through ball master. All those players suffered dips in their career and came roaring back from slumps this year.

And let's not forgett Victor Moses, the player most emblematic of the changes under Conte. After three years on loan, Moses returned to Stamford Bridge with hopes of being a rotation player on the wing. But Conte tasked him with converting to a wingback, and Moses committed to the role. Now he has more than 30 appearances patrolling the flank and has revitalized a promising career many fans and pundits believed was stalled.

Chelsea's turnaround has been an amazing achievement, but some of that success must be attributed to their failures last season, as contradictory as that might seem. The Blue's dismal finish kept them out of both the Champions and Europa Leagues. While that failure can hit the club in the pocketbook, it helps the club with regard to fitness.

By simply not playing in Europe, Chelsea was able to play anywhere between eight and 14 fewer games than their rivals for the Premier League title. This lack of European football also helped Leicester last season. Without the same glut of fixtures as the rest of the Premier League's top teams, Chelsea stayed fresh and healthy.

There's also a mental edge that comes with no Europe. While Arsenal, Manchester City and Tottenham are shuffling lineups and prioritizing matches trying to do what they can in the Premier and Champions League, Chelsea had one focus: win the EPL. With a single clear objective, there was no prioritizing to be done. The most important match was always the next one, and that allowed Conte to always put his best 11 on the pitch in Premier League matches.

Make no mistake, though, you don't win the league by virtue of playing in only one competition. You still have to know your roles. You still have to have a better game plan than your opponent. You have to outwork the man you're marking. You have to beat the man marking you. You have to go out, week after week, and put in a performance, no fuss no muss. You have to be professionals. You have to do your job.
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