The three most exciting developments in Thursday’s 1-2 win over Burnley — and isn’t it refreshing to be talking about changes and developments this late in the season? — were the harnessing of Giroud and Morata up front, the first Premier League start for Emerson Palmieri and Pedro’s turn as a midfielder. All three worked well and Antonio Conte was enthusiastic about them at Friday’s pre-FA Cup semifinal press conference.
Playing with two strikers is something Conte has wanted to do all along. He briefly tried the formation during Chelsea’s rough start to last season, but Michy Batshuayi wasn’t a good fit and he moved on to now in-vogue 3-4-3.
Now, it’s back. Judging by the noises Conte is making, it might be around for as long as he is.
“Our target... the first target was to bring more players into the box. Sometimes, when we play with only one striker and two No10s, we have difficulty getting into the box and becoming more dangerous when we have Marcos or Emerson crossing into the box, because we only have one or two players at most in the box.
”With two strikers, you fill the box better. You have the possibility to hold the ball better than a player with other characteristics. In my past, I always played with two strikers. Then, when you arrive in a new club, you have to adapt yourself to the players you have and try and find the best solution for your team. It happened, this, in Chelsea.
”But I like a lot to play with two strikers and my past speaks of that very well. Because, often, a lot of times, I played with two strikers with different characteristics. But with two strikers.”
Just as he did at Thursday’s post-match press conference, Conte refused to commit to using the duo again in Sunday’s semi against Southampton. But he doesn’t exactly sound opposed to the idea, does he?
The other nice development on Thursday was the first league start for January addition Emerson at left wing-back (in place of the suspended Marcos Alonso). Emerson has been recovering from a serious knee injury and hasn’t played much this season, either for Roma or for Conte. Prior to Thursday he had just 15 minutes as a sub in the Premier League and one complete game against Hull City in the FA Cup.
His fitness may be a question (Zappacosta replaced him the the 84th minute) but he didn’t put a foot wrong. Again, Conte praised him but wouldn’t commit to using him again on two days’ rest.
“In this moment it’s very difficult to answer. Emerson didn’t play many games and yesterday he played a really good game. Defensively and offensively. For sure, offensively, I think he must be more positive and try and have more one versus ones, because he has these characteristics.
”We are talking about a young player who’s a really good prospect for Chelsea. I have two days to make the best decision for Sunday’s game, to understand who are the players who have recovered after yesterday’s game, and then to make the best decision. For sure, he’s in contention for Southampton’s game.”
Another player who made a rare appearance was Tiémoué Bakayoko. He’d only played two minutes in Chelsea’s last six league matches and was pulled at half-time against Leicester in the FA Cup after picking up an early yellow card. It had looked like Conte was protecting the 23 year-old’s shattered confidence and had parked him for the season. But with Fabregas being over-used and Drinkwater injured again (groin strain) he didn’t have much choice. Baka didn’t let him down.
“It’s the same as Emerson. We are talking about a young player. This season, I think, he struggled a lot but yesterday he played very well, with great focus and great concentration and good quality.
”Maybe when we play with three midfielders, it’s better for him because he has the possibility to attack the box. To fill the box.”
Speaking of midfielders, the versatile Pedro (he’s already played wing, inside-forward and wing-back) made his debut as a roving creator. After taking a few minutes find his sea legs in his new role, he gave Burnley fits with his runs.
“And, yesterday, don’t forget Pedro’s performance.
”It was his first time playing as a midfielder, and he played very well and showed that he can play in this role with great quality, with great stamina. So I was very pleased with the whole team. I saw team spirit. This is very important when we try and finish this season in the best possible way.”
The FA Cup is Chelsea’s last chance to win a trophy this season. Once a glorious event, in recent years it’s become devalued as top clubs chase the money of Champions League places, or fight relegation, and field weakened sides. After Thursday’s draw at Leicester, Southampton boss Mark Hughes said his players looked leggy. That’s a not-so subtle way of saying he’s likely to field a weakened side on Sunday — though Chelsea already beat the first-team just a few days ago in rather thrilling fashion.
For Conte, there is no choice. The best have to play, the trophy must be won.
“In every case, we must have great motivation to finish the season as strongly as possible. In every case. Now we have this possibility, first of all, to play at Wembley for the second time in a row.
”We have the possibility, if we win against Southampton, to play an important final for the second year in a row. Then we have to try and do our best and finish the season in the best possible way this season that, for many reasons, has been a struggle.”
Thursday was Conte’s 100th match at Chelsea. The gaffer says he didn’t even know it until afterwards and, given how hot the seat he occupies has become, he was understandably wary of the idea of long tenures for any manager these days.
“I must be honest, I don’t like the stats. Only yesterday, after the game, I found out it was my 100 game with Chelsea. My desire is always the same. My desire is to try and win every game. This is my mentality. I have a winning mentality. I try to transfer that winning mentality around the people who work with me.”
”As you know very well, as I said before, it’s very difficult, no... In the past you could have a story like Wenger’s story or Ferguson’s story. In the present you must live the present in football, because you don’t know what will happen tomorrow. Or even today.”
And on a final and sartorial note, you may have noticed that our coach is looking a little grizzled in the facial zone. He often says he can’t sleep when his teams struggle. Turns out, he may forget to shave as well.
“I’m so focused about finishing the season in the right way I forget to (shave) my beard, but it’s not a big problem.”
-Antonio Conte; source: Football.London
Forgetfulness? Or superstition? Conte claimed his last beard had nothing to do with courting Lady Luck. But his denial sounded a little weak. With back-to-back wins for the first time this year (what dismal stat that is,) Conte could stand on his head for all we care. Just keep the wins coming, boss!