As the 2016-17 Premier League season rounds the corner into the home stretch, Chelsea lead the pack by a considerable distance. In some ways, Saturday’s 3-1 dismantling of London rivals Arsenal was emblematic of the way the title chase has gone this season, with Chelsea nine points clear at the top. The Blues played well at both ends of the pitch but the flaws and mistakes of their opponents made their job much easier than it should have been. And so the question remains: are Antonio Conte’s new-look Chelsea side really that good or have the league’s top sides simply fallen over themselves to hand them the title?
Chelsea’s three goals against the Gunners offer a microcosm of the way their season has gone vis-a-vis those of the top six clubs. The first came in the 13th minute when Pedro sent in a great cross for Diego Costa, whose bullet header struck the bar before Marcos Alonso steamed in to head home the rebound. Alonso showed excellent anticipation and desire to sprint from the corner of the eighteen yard box and jump over Hector Bellerin’s half-hearted challenge. That Alonso was unmarked demonstrates how difficult it is for other teams to defend the wingbacks in Conte’s system. However, Theo Walcott simply stopped tracking Alonso, which allowed him a free run at the ball over the more static Bellerin.
Chelsea’s talisman Eden Hazard added the second with a brilliant run past five Arsenal players before chipping the ball over Petr Cech. Surely a candidate for goal of the season, Hazard displayed his own supreme dribbling ability coupled with a drive to score similar to Alonso. Though it was an incredible solo effort by Hazard, Arsenal’s defense was again found wanting. Defensive midfielder Francis Coquelin failed to bring the little Belgian down and take the yellow card, instead getting shrugged off and falling in a heap. But Coquelin was not the only one to blame. As Hazard galloped toward goal inside the final third, the rest of the Arsenal midfield were merely jogging in his wake. Excellent solo goal, yes. Terrible defending again, also yes.
Chelsea’s third goal included the same hunger as the first two but the Gunners contrived to substitute poor defending for shocking individual errors by Cech and makeshift right back Gabriel. For some reason, the Brazilian decided it would be a good ideal to throw the ball in back to his keeper, who was immediately pressured by Costa. Cech then fluffed his lines in attempting to play out of the back. The ball fell straight to substitute Cesc Fabregas who delicately lobbed the ball in from 25 yards out. I’ve watched the replay of this goal a dozen times and cannot for the life of me figure out why Gabriel threw the ball back to Cech in his own final third with Costa hovering around the Arsenal backline. The former Chelsea keeper seemed caught in two minds delivered a limp ball out in a panic. Once again, the shape of Conte’s team allowed the goalscorer to be in the right position to pounce on the opponent’s errors.
Such a harsh indictment of individual errors cannot be limited to Arsenal. Earlier in the week Liverpool goalkeeper Simon Mignolet allowed David Luiz the chance to score on an open goal from a direct free kick, costing his team the chance at a vital three points against the league leaders. Manchester City’s litany of mistakes at the back has ended their title chances, too.
So while Chelsea have been excellent this season, much of their success can be attributed to limiting their own defensive lapses and a commitment to pouncing on the mistakes of their rivals. It’s no coincidence that probably the only team that can halt the Blues’ title charge is Tottenham, who employ similar strategy in masking their flaws and aggressively punishing defensive errors. If Chelsea do win the Premier League title this spring, it will be due as much to their own strategic strengths as to the flaws of the rest of the top six.
- Andrew D'Anieri