Antonio Conte’s first two competitive games as Chelsea manager have been nothing short of frantic, not too dissimilar to the 47-year-old Italian’s touchline antics, and providing sharp contrast to the lethargy shown by the majority of the squad during the previous campaign. The season may be young, but Chelsea have exhibited the disposition and the will to fight tirelessly to secure victory — a trait required for aspiring Champions — and Conte’s guidance could see Chelsea return to the top four or even mount a genuine title challenge, providing resolute competition to Manchester’s powerhouses.
Conte’s arrival has seemingly breathed new life into players who had plummeted into a state of mediocrity. Eden Hazard has maintained the form that had distinguished him as the shining light of a distinctly average, disorganized, and mismanaged Belgian side at Euro 2016. Diego Costa — and his fiery temperament — have been rejuvenated, the Spanish international’s return to the heights of 2014/15 appears to be a certainty rather than ill-found optimism. Additionally, the rather surprising but equally exceptional acquisition of N’golo Kante has provided brawn to a midfield that was borderline average for much of the previous season.
The orchestrator responsible for this promising change of fortunes is Antonio Conte. Although it is probably best to avoid likening him to his non-interim predecessor — as tempting as that may be — it is certainly difficult to recall a manager who has captured the hearts of supporters and players alike in such rapid fashion. Upon his arrival at Stamford Bridge the Italian expressed his desire to fight and work and fight and work, that mentality has unquestionably transpired in his opening 180 minutes of football in the Premier League.
When James Collins fired home after a lucky sequence on Monday night, the Chelsea of old would have wallowed in a state of self-pity and most probably would have dropped two points or even fail to register a single point in the end. This, however, is a renewed Chelsea, an enlivened Chelsea who refused to be beaten by a familiar foe – 4 of Collins’ 9 career goals have come against the Blues. A combination of the players’ intrepid attitude and Conte’s astute decision-making served as the perfect concoction as the Blues sealed a derby victory in dramatic fashion courtesy of a magnificent strike by Diego Costa.
The same dogged determination was on display against Watford, albeit for a much shorter period. One could have been easily mistaken for watching the Chelsea of last season in the game’s opening 80 minutes. Chelsea’s attack lacked direction and despite enjoying the greater share of possession Chelsea failed to show any inkling or ability to capitalise on that advantage. The Blues were far too narrow going forward and the over-reliance on Eden Hazard was tangible and sobering.
A standard feature of the last campaign reappeared, when Chelsea’s defence were conceding opportunities far too often. Indeed it was a moment of carelessness and defensive ineptitude that saw Conte fall behind for the first time. An unmarked Etienne Capoue capitalised emphatically on the Blues’ defensive fragility. In truth, it was an embarrassing goal to concede for a defence that flaunts such considerable experience.
With only twelve minutes remaining the entire complexion of the match was altered by the arrival of Cesc Fabregas. The Spaniard, who had been left out entirely against West Ham, was seeking his opportunity at redemption. Not only did his introduction provide much-needed flair, but Eden Hazard was now liberated to exert his influence on the game further forward as well.
Fabregas’s impact was almost immediate; he delivered the pass to Hazard that led to Chelsea’s equaliser. Then, shortly thereafter, produced a stunningly perfect long-range pass into the path of Diego Costa who produced a delightful finish with his first shot on goal.
The season is two games old, and Conte has secured two successive victories which already represents a significant improvement. It took the Blues six games to register six points last season, while collecting just one point from these same two fixtures. Despite obtaining the maximum amount of points, a gaping problem clouds the optimism that Chelsea’s start has ensued. Chelsea’s defence remains far too frail and could curtail any surge that may be on the horizon.
Without question, the trio of Gary Cahill, Branislav Ivanovic and John Terry, the latter especially, are engraved indefinitely in Chelsea folklore, yet as a unit, they are not as formidable as they once were. Fresh blood is required not only as a measure to provide further competition in training but also as a "right" solution to the defensive frailties that continue to persist.
Chelsea’s ageing defensive unit have conceded only two goals in the season’s first two games, but they do carry the undesirable record of conceding 53 league goals last season. With the greatest respect to both Watford and West Ham, they do not exactly brandish the most potent attacks in the Premier League. Given the extent of the damage that these sides have inflicted (or tried to inflict) upon Thibaut Courtois’ goal, it is certainly easier to envisage a campaign closer to 53 conceded again than the goal-per-game margin (or even better)! of this young season.
The club’s efforts to acquire defensive targets have been to no avail, and the relentless pursuit of Kalidou Koulibaly mirrored the horror-show of John Stones’ transfer saga last year. With the departures of Papy Djilobodji, Baba Rahman and Michael Hector, an already depleted component of the team has been weakened further.
While Conte’s talk of a crazy market remains prevalent and sensible — especially considering the inflated prices that circulate among the rumor mill — Chelsea risk the possibility of conceding substantial ground to the other top teams if targets are not fulfilled.
If intentions to mount a top-four challenge, not to mention a title challenge, are sincere, then Roman must delve deep into his pockets once again and provide the team with the appropriate reinforcements. Chelsea’s lack of defensive numbers in conjunction with the team’s defensive performances should necessitate expenditure, yet given the Board’s recent signings it is rather bold to predict any outcome with a sense of assured certainty. Only one thing seems certain amid the feel-good vibes of the back-to-back win, Chelsea’s hopes of a successful season will hine on the team’s ability to lure defensive targets.