Antonio Conte made one change to the starting lineup that got Chelsea wins over Manchester United and West Bromwich Albion on either side of the November international break, giving Danny Drinkwater his first start for Chelsea in the Premier League and relegating Cesc Fàbregas to the bench, which has not happened too often recently.
In fact, it was only the third game all season that Cesc did not start, in addition to the one game he had to miss through suspension. Combined with pre-season, Fàbregas’s workload has been constant and grueling, and in no small part due to the fact that he’s been the one midfielder who’s managed to stay healthy all year. That’s no small feat considering he’s the oldest of the four midfielders at 30, and at this time last year, was at best a rotational option for the Blues. After the game, Conte talked a bit about needing to manager the midfielder’s match fitness.
“I think when you play every three days it’s very difficult but every coach tries to make the best decision for his team, it’s important to have rotation otherwise you risk having players who are very tired, in this case Cesc.
“He’s played every game from the start of the season because don’t forget, Bakayoko and Drinkwater were injured. We played in China and Singapore with just Kante and Cesc, and then N’Golo was injured but Cesc continued to play. He played every game, and played very well in every game, so I took this decision and it was important because when you give a new player this type of chance, in a big game, it shows the coach trusts all of his players. I can count on Drinkwater.”
Drinkwater slotted in for Fàbregas in the middle of the 3-5-2, adding a more physical, more dynamic, but less controlling presence to the proceedings. Given Tiemoué Bakayoko’s off-day, those first two qualities certainly proved useful, as did his understanding with N’Golo Kanté as they recreated their title-winning midfielder partnership from Leicester City.
The move to put Fàbregas on the bench is also beneficial in terms of giving Conte an ace-in-the-hole to use later in the game. And sure enough, Fàbregas proved a difference-maker from the bench after Salah staked Liverpool to a one-goal lead just past the hour-mark.
“We played in a really good way because today we had a tactical plan. For Liverpool it was very difficult to make chances to score. We prepared very well and it was a tactical decision, especially in the first half, to be very solid, and then be dangerous with the ball. In the second half we dominated the game and created many chances to score. Liverpool were lucky to score, and then to draw.
“The first sub, I changed Danny because it was his first league game from the start, a big game, and you lose mental and physical energy, he played very well. With Cesc I wanted good quality in midfield. I changed Bakayoko for Pedro and I asked Pedro to play as a midfielder because he’s more offensive than Bakayoko. Then I brought Willian on to play with the strikers and moved Pedro to wing-back, I think it was a good idea, but even before the changes I don’t think we deserved to be 1-0 down.”
And speaking of quality off the bench, Conte’s third substitution proved perhaps the most crucial one, as Willian continue his red hot form by scoring barely two minutes after stepping onto the pitch. He may not have meant it, but when you’re hot, you’re hot.
After the injury problems of the first few months of the season, it sure is nice to at last have a full complement of midfielders available. Conte has not had the chance to utilize Chelsea’s depth at the position for much of the season, after all.
“It’s very important to have four midfielders and make the decision if I want to play with three or two. The impact of the subs today was great. Willian, Fàbregas and Pedro all played against Qarabag. Willian scored twice, Cesc also scored and Pedro had a really good performance. Today when I decided to make the subs, their impact was great and I want this. I want to create this atmosphere.”
-Antonio Conte; source: Chelsea FC
With Chelsea set for twice weekly games from now until mid-January, that quality depth will be counted on to help us solidify a top-four position and continue making progress in the cups, and also allow tactical variation depending on squad availability and opposition strength. (We’ll need Batshuayi and Moses back sooner rather than later, too!)
Conte’s decisions against Liverpool weren’t without criticism — he’s never one for early substitutions, but perhaps giving Fàbregas, Pedro, and Willian more than 15, 13, and 7 minutes (plus stoppage time), respectively, might have been helpful — but in the end, they did get Chelsea an important point at a tough place (Liverpool remain unbeaten at home this season) and showed yet another useful variation for the midfield setup.
Yet another good result to build from as winter arrives.