On paper, there was only one difference between the Chelsea lineup yesterday against West Ham United in our first match of the 2016-17 Premier League season, and the Chelsea lineup twelve months ago against Swansea City in our first match of the 2015-16 Premier League season.
Granted, N'Golo Kanté will be counted on to make a crucial difference all season, just as he had yesterday, but he couldn't have done it without the other 10 players not named Cesc Fàbregas stepping up and playing like they had two years ago. That's not to say that it's Cesc for whom the bell tolls.
"Cesc is Chelsea's player and I'm happy with his attitude and behaviour. He must know when you are at a great team like Chelsea I have to take decisions before the game, to choose a starting 11. It can happen that Fabregas isn't in the starting 11 but it can happen to all the players. It's important to always see the right attitude because we must fight this season. Now, I took this decision but in the next game we don't know, I could change or not."
"When a coach makes a decision there is always a reason but I prefer to keep it for me. But I repeat I don't see any problem, I'm very happy to have these players and train these players."
And these players certainly repaid the new head coach's faith.
There was Branislav Ivanović, looking solid in defense alongside his usual cohorts, but also marauding up the field and flipping the script on the Hammers' dangerous wingers. There was Nemanja Matić patrolling the midfield and providing a few lovely passes. There was Diego Costa, snarling, chirping, provoking, causing controversy ... and scoring a goal. There was Eden Hazard driving at defenders and taking shots and not missing penalty kicks. There was Oscar and Willian, both working hard as usual, but also creating chances. Flicky, tackle-y Oscar is the best Oscar and if this continues, he will truly be a man reborn under Antonio Conte.
Because while the players themselves were mostly the same, the attitudes were markedly different. And it made all the difference in the end.
"I'm delighted with the performance because I saw a lot of good things. There was great intensity and possession. We know we can improve through our work but tonight it was very important to start with a victory against a strong side like West Ham. We deserved the victory because we created a lot of chances."
"Every manager when they arrive at a new club tries to bring their philosophy and we have only been working with the players for one month, but I'm pleased. Tonight I saw the right intensity and the players always tried to find the situation we did in the training sessions."
"It's important to bring something different from last season. I'm very happy with the attitude and behaviour of the players and to have a great team it's important to have the right spirit."
-Antonio Conte; source: Chelsea FC
Unlike last year, we also had the requisite amount of luck to make up for not being able to turn our dominance into more goals. Last year, Thibaut Courtois was sent off for a tackle that would not be a sending off this year thanks to the new last man red card rules (and was borderline last year, even). This year, Diego Costa, after collecting a ridiculous yellow card early on for "dissent" was then spared a second for a late tackle on the loose feet of West Ham's goalkeeper. Of course, when the man in charge is Anthony Taylor, expecting the refereeing to resemble anything other than a crapshoot is highly optimistic.
Referee: blatant penalty on Oscar. Collins clear yellow on Costa right before Kanté yellow. Both in first 30. Any Chelsea issues much later.— Grant James (@GrantJames_CFC) August 15, 2016
Still, to his credit, West Ham boss Slaven Bilic wasn't looking to hide behind the #CostaCrimes narrative that's already dominating many a tabloid's back pages.
"From our point of view we are not happy with that. I saw the tackle once again ... I don't think it was reckless. It was not a deliberate one. But it was late. Nine times out of 10, a challenge on a goalkeeper like this looks like a booking. Unfortunately this was the 10th time. But, really, I'm only disappointed with the way the goals were conceded."
"Chelsea deserved it. We were so close and thought that was it at 1-1 late on. But, to be honest, apart from the first 15 minutes, and the time we equalised, they were better than us. We didn't create many chances, we gave them a penalty. The second goal we had the ball totally in control, too, at our end of the park. They were much more aggressive, winning balls and second balls, and their front four were on fire. I'm not happy with the way we played. We can do much better."
-Slaven Bilic; source: Guardian
West Ham looked to have snatched a lucky equalizer anyway, but we're in 2016-17 now. And 2016-17 is off to a perfect start.