Conte and Kante: Making Chelsea great again
With Chelsea a totally different beast from last season, Sports Gazette looks at the two men who have stepped up at the Bridge.
It is hard to believe that Chelsea won’t be crowned champions come May - nine points clear at the top of the Premier League as they are and with only one league defeat since September.
When you consider that this time last year they were languishing in 13th place in the table, you’re left wondering how a team can be so improved in such a short space of time.
Almost all would agree that the two most significant factors that has led to this metamorphosis are the appointment of Antonio Conte as manager and the signing of N’Golo Kante from champions Leicester City.
There’s no doubt that Conte inherited an extremely talented group of players, albeit a group that had seemingly stopped playing for previous manager Jose Mourinho.
Conte’s first job as Chelsea manager was to reignite Eden Hazard and Diego Costa, arguably their most important players and whose form had dipped most drastically last campaign.
He did this immediately, with the players sharing the goals in a 2-1 over West Ham in the opening game of the season.
Costa and Hazard have continued to be excellent, scoring 25 goals between them already this season - nine more than they managed in the entirety of last season.
It wasn't just the attacking players who had struggled last season however, and Conte saw that a change of formation was necessary.
Branislav Ivanovic had been poor for much of the 2015/16 season and John Terry, now 36, could only realistically be used sparingly rather than as a regular.
It was no surprise that Antonio Conte implemented a 3-4-3 formation - with his trademark use of wing-backs that he had previously adopted to steer Juventus to three consecutive titles.
What shocked many fans and pundits though were the wing-backs that Conte chose to play in his new formation - Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso.
Moses had been largely in the wilderness since he joined Chelsea in 2012, with underwhelming loan spells at Liverpool, Stoke and West Ham meaning that few envisaged him having a future at Chelsea.
It was a similar situation with Alonso, who had been playing relatively well at Fiorentina for the last two seasons but not considered by many to be ‘Chelsea’ quality.He's played the game and he knows how to organise his players”
Both players have been excellent so far this season and the change of system was pivotal to Chelsea matching Arsenal’s 2002 record of 13 consecutive wins in a single season.
The extraordinary run of form - eventually ended by Spurs in January - also led to Conte becoming the first manager to scoop three consecutive manager of the month awards.
Moses, who has always been used as an attacking player, is delighting in his new role and has been full of praise of Conte's tactical nous.
In a Chelsea matchday programme last month, he said: "I've never dreamed of playing in this position in my life, but I'm enjoying it and I think it's probably one of the best positions to be honest. The more games I'm playing there, the more I'm improving.
"I'm delighted with the way we're playing, not just me but the whole team, with the formation the manager has brought. He's played the game and he knows how to organise his players."
In order for for this system to work, a holding midfielder who protects the back three while the wing-backs are utilised in attack is essential.
Enter N’Golo Kante.
Kante first arrived in England, almost entirely unknown, when he signed for Leicester in the summer of last year from French League 2 side Caen.
The 25 year-old’s impact was instant and, along with Jamie Vardy, became a key component of the Leicester side that defied 5000/1 odds to win the Premier League.
His trademark tireless work rate impressed fans and inspired the creation of the hashtag #KanteFacts on twitter.
Kante's heat map for this season has accelerated global warming by 10 years. #KanteFacts— Kante Facts (@KanteFacts_) February 6, 2017
Chelsea understandably came knocking over the summer and the reported fee of £32m now seems like an incredible bargain.
When Chelsea signed Kante in the summer, everyone knew that they’d gained a fantastic player - but few predicted that the transformation of both Leicester and Chelsea would be quite so startling.
Comparing the teams’ current points total with this stage last season - without Kante Leicester are 29 points worse off while Chelsea are a full 30 points better off with the Frenchman.
When pitted, top-trump style, against similar style midfielders from ‘top six’ Premier League teams it becomes even clearer how well Kante has performed - with far more tackles, interceptions and 50/50s won.
Kante's job last season at Leicester was to break up play and release the ball as quickly as possible so that the Foxes could use their famous counter-attack.
The change of formation and playing style at Chelsea is helping Kante to improve the facets of his game that we didn't see so much last year - using intelligent passes to break down an oppositions defence.
The Frenchman is relishing the new challenging, telling the club website: "The way I play here is to protect the back three, to control the balance of the game from midfield, and to find the attacking players in the team with my passing.
"I am happy in this position and with the way I am playing it."
Unsurprisingly, comparisons with compatriat Claude Makelele - who, along with Jose Mourinho, became a club legend when Chelsea won back-to-back Premier League titles - have already begun.
There’s a long way to go before either can earn the same iconic status but, despite the headline-grabbing goals from Costa and Hazard, it is Conte and Kante that have inarguably made Chelsea great again.