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Chelsea fans simply want to forget about 2015.
After a season that saw the club finish 10th, their lowest finish in the Premier League era, Chelsea sought an overhaul. Facing their first year without Champions’ League football since 2002, fans and ownership alike knew that overhaul would not come in terms of a roster shakeup, but rather a mentality shift.
That shift came in the form of Antonio Conte, the former Juventus and Italian national team manager notorious for ruthless intensity, tactical brilliance and touchline hijinks. However, with just the Premier League to focus on for the coming year, Chelsea fans wanted one thing: results.
On Monday against West Ham, the fans got what they wanted.
Conte’s team appeared leagues more invested than the exact same players did a year ago under Jose Mourinho. They fought for every 50-50 ball, maintained their tactical shape, and pressed forward for chances, keeping the West Ham players on their heels.
In fact, it was a far cry from the nearly identical roster that opened up the Premier League a season ago, when the Blues drew Swansea 2-2, after spending the majority of the second half with ten men. It was apparent that Conte’s intensity had rubbed off against West Ham, giving Chelsea fans what they had clamored for over the past year.
Nowhere was this more apparent than the play of Eden Hazard, who was unquestionably the best player on the field. Chelsea fans will remember that Hazard did not score until April in the Premier League last season, making it that much more encouraging for the west London faithful that he was able to get a goal in his first game this season. Hazard looked back to his old self against West Ham after a disappointing 2015 campaign, and if he can keep it up, Chelsea will be in good shape.
Additionally, the play of new signing N’Golo Kante was especially impressive for Chelsea, demonstrating his prowess as a holding midfielder. Occupying the space normally taken up by more creative midfielder Cesc Fabregas, Kante flew all over the field, brilliantly stepping into tackles and frequently breaking up West Ham’s distribution efforts through the midfield. Kante offered the bite that Chelsea missed for so much of last season, and it was encouraging to see a destroyer in the middle again, similar to former Chelsea men like Ramires and Michael Essien. Kante is certainly a welcome addition to the squad.
Of course, no Chelsea game would be complete without some story line from Diego Costa. Luckily for Chelsea fans, this one was positive. After a difficult game, where he saw many of his dribbling attempts curtailed by the West Ham defense, Costa slotted home an 89th minute goal into the back corner of West Ham’s net to secure victory for his side. While I have been painfully critical of Costa in the past, it’s hard to argue with that kind of result.
Overall, the most impressive thing about Chelsea’s performance under Conte is just how big a difference there was in the quality of play versus 2015, with virtually the same squad. Other than Kante, every single other player in the starting 11 was on Chelsea last season. However, Conte has them playing more ferociously, with more desire, and in a more suitable tactical set up. If he can continue winning, he will undoubtedly prove that it was never about lack of talent at Chelsea, but rather in the way that talent is coached and deployed.
For now, it can be said that the first step of the turnaround has gone well, and Chelsea fans will anxiously await the next 37 games, as they look to return to the pinnacle of English football.