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Appreciate the beauty of Chelsea's season

In years past Chelsea have won with grit, this time around, it’s with class.

Chelsea v Swansea City - Premier League Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

The overwhelming narrative of Chelsea’s 2014-15 title win centered around the conceit that winning without some stereotypical ideal of a consistently beautiful attack was somehow less enjoyable. Throughout that season, as this narrative was bubbling over, I never bought into it. Some of it was due to Chelsea’s title run being the first since I had started following the team. However, most of it was due to my perspective on sports as an art form. Appreciating the defensive hustle and core of a successful team is important.

As we’ve gotten farther from the glorious day Chelsea lifted the trophy, little of my opinion has changed. While I understand that Chelsea’s style of play in 2014-15 wasn’t exactly wide open or consistently entertaining, it was still glorious. It was important to me during the season to properly appreciate the way that Chelsea could lock teams down and suffocate their offensive efforts.

This season feels different. It’s not exactly clear why. There are a couple obvious answers, a different manager and a different formation. But is that all? It’s mostly the same exact players after all, playing most of the minutes. Why does Chelsea’s 2016-17 campaign feel different than the 2014-15 campaign?

Chelsea v Sunderland - Premier League Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

It’s fascinating to compare the statistics from the championship-winning campaign in 2014-15 to this season’s immense success so far. When comparing the two seasons, it’s important to keep a few things in mind:

  1. Chelsea were playing in Europe in 2014-15, which would impact the way that the squad had to rotate and play. It also impacted the way that the team finished down the stretch. Without European competition, Antonio Conte’s Chelsea may not wear down.
  2. There are still games to be played. This season’s journey to glory is by no means complete.
  3. The style of the two managers is vital, especially in reacting to different scenarios in the last 20 minutes of games.

With all of that in mind, Chelsea’s team this year has had slightly better luck conceding goals than in their 2014-15 season. Once again, there are multiple caveats that must be taken into account when comparing the two seasons. With those in mind, Chelsea have conceded 0.74 goals per match this season as opposed to the 0.84 goals per match they conceded in 2014-15.

What I presumed would be a telling statistic in attempting to explain the slight difference is possession. In 2014-15 Chelsea averaged 54.1% possession, only good for sixth in the Premier League. Thus far in the 2016-17 season, Chelsea have averaged basically the same at 53.9% possession, good for, once again, sixth in the Premier League.

On the offensive side, scoring is slightly up. This year Chelsea are putting away 2.11 goals per match, slightly up from the 1.92 per match in 2014-15. They aren’t passing any more this year (533.4 passes at 83.2% vs. 533.3 at 83.6% this year), they aren’t shooting more (less, in fact at 14.8 vs. 14.1), and they aren’t shooting more accurately (5.5 on target vs. 5 on average this season).

Chelsea v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

I looked, and looked for answers that made sense in statistics. I couldn’t find any that truly made sense. Certain analytical statistics would back my argument, and others would defeat it.

The conclusion I came to is that there one main reason that Chelsea’s 2016-17 title campaign feels different. Antonio Conte is simply a genuinely more likable manager than José Mourinho. The personality in interviews and on the pitch set him apart from most managers. He is genuinely fun to root for. Chelsea fans love José, but he would occasionally get tiresome to root for.

In addition, the highly successful — which certainly does help! — formation Conte switched to in the midst of the Arsenal debacle earlier this season was simply something new and different. Without looking at statistics, this year’s Conte-led team feels light-years more consistently exciting than any José-led side.

Chelsea are much more positive and attack-minded when games are close under Conte. Instead of shutting down the side when the game is 1-1 in the 79th minute, Conte will go for it with an additional striker and Cesc Fabregas. In the same scenario, Mourinho would bring on John Obi Mikel. The feel of the games coming down the stretch are different. While it may be hard to quantify all that, the credit goes to Antonio Conte.

The joy that Chelsea fans have felt throughout the first Conte season may wear off. It seems that in the Premier League, winning a title means you’ll be sacked the next year. Just ask four out of the last five managers to win the league.

While the future Antonio Conte sacking feels inevitable. So for the time being, let’s instead enjoy the style that he’s instilled in this Chelsea side. The breakneck counterattacks. The wonderful midfield intricacies that play out when Eden Hazard is roaming and playing off of his teammates. The athleticism and hard work we see Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso put in every game. The defensive structures and making three-men defenses cool again. It’s all special, and should be appreciated.

The type of season Chelsea are having are few and far between. Being able to win games with consistency and beautiful football don’t happen often. Teams either can play like Liverpool and be inconsistent, or play like Chelsea in 2014-15 and grind teams down. The combination of playing efficiently gorgeous soccer, and winning, don’t come that often.

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