A derby defeat against Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane has finally ended Antonio Conte’s 13-game winning streak as Chelsea manager. Despite their dream run, the Blues are only five points ahead of second-placed Liverpool who are still very much in title contention and the likes of Spurs, Arsenal and both Manchester clubs have kept the race wide open.
No European football and early exit from League Cup might have eased the pressure of excessive games for the Blues. Also, their squad depth and bench strength have made them favourites to reconquer the silverware. Since shifting to a back three formation, Conte upturned Chelsea’s campaign which had a mediocre inception during the first couple of months. With N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic in the heart of midfield, Chelsea stopped leaking goals and looked defensively stable with consecutive clean sheets. Both of them kept on providing much-needed cover for their backline which was nervy at times.
Kante has been a revolution and is continuing his majestic form of last season which led Leicester City to lift the Premier League title defying all odds. Matic, too, shook off his last season’s ordeal and back to his best alongside the Frenchman. Matic’s form has jeopardised Cesc Fabregas’ place in starting XI who although had a miserable 2015-16 campaign, played a key role in their title-winning season under Jose Mourinho a couple of years back.
Lack of game-time has forced Oscar to move elsewhere a couple of weeks ago who joined Chinese outfit Shanghai SIPG. Fabregas, too, was reportedly frustrated and seeking a transfer for regular football. However, things have changed lately as Matic and Fabregas are now being rotated by Conte to partner Kante.
Fabregas brings attacking intent with his vision, skills and passing quality whereas, Matic provides more defensive stability by breaking goal-bound threats, offers a physical presence and helps his side to form counter attacking movements. They are different sort of footballers and both of them have been extremely affluent for Chelsea so far this campaign.
But the defeat against Spurs has raised a few questions on Conte’s preference who decided to start Matic over Fabregas with the later had a massive impact on Chelsea’s 4-2 triumph against Stoke City on New Year’s Eve. He registered two assists in that game and controlled the play from midfield. The Spaniard, however, has made only five league starts this season and according to former Arsenal star Paul Merson, Chelsea would have had greater influence if Fabregas was handed another against Spurs:
‘Conte missed a trick against Spurs. Fabregas had to play. Tottenham were always going to press Chelsea and suffocate them – and they could do that to Kante and Matic. If he played Fabregas, Tottenham would have dropped off because of what he can do.’
One defeat does not change anything and Conte has already proved his class and quality with game reading traits and touchline antics. Both Fabregas and Matic are treasures to any top flight football outfit and it’s now up to the Italian boss how to use his weapons during the paramount phase of this prestigious competition.