There isn’t much that is English about the English champions. A Russian owner, Italian coach and multinational squad have combined to give Chelsea its second Premier League title in three years. But that very cosmopolitan nature of the West London club could help provide the ingredients to make England a force again in European club soccer.
Much of the credit for Chelsea’s Premier League title, which it clinched Friday with a 1-0 win at West Bromwich Albion, has been given to the fact that Antonio Conte’s team has not had to compete in the Champions League.
While it is by no means the only reason that the Blues have been a cut above the competition, being able to focus resources entirely on the domestic campaign has had clear benefits.
Fewer games means less fatigue, less chance of injury, less travel and overall fewer distractions from the task of winning on the weekend. It means Wednesday can be used for a tactical training session rather than a flight and hotel stay. It also means that Conte has not had to rotate his first-team selections to keep players fresh for midweek trips to the continent.
The former Juventus and Italy coach has made adjustments from time to time but has been able to keep his core players on the field throughout the campaign.
Leicester showed last season — when it too won the Premier League while it sat out international competition — the value that can be found in the simple formula of knowing your best team and playing it as often as possible. Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, Arsene Wenger at Arsenal and Jose Mourinho at Manchester United, might have liked to have followed suit but, with more games resulting from double duty and more injuries, have been forced to use the full range of options in their squads.
Those factors may explain Chelsea’s consistency — it has been on top of the league standings since Dec. 11 and has never truly looked in danger of falling off its perch — but Conte’s shrewd tactical approach and the outstanding ability of key individuals have delivered the title-winning quality. Those factors offer hope that in next year’s Champions League the Blues may be able to cope better than most English clubs have recently.
Tottenham may have played the most exciting football this season — fast and direct with the killer touch in the final third — and City and Liverpool have shown promising flashes of what they might become in time under Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp, respectively, but Chelsea has the look and feel of a Champions League team.
Conte’s key tactical change this season, after a poor winless September concluded with a 3-0 loss to Arsenal, was to switch to a three-man central defense with Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso operating as attacking wingbacks. The results were startling: The team kept six straight clean sheets while scoring 17 goals.
Brazilian defender David Luiz, a surprise late transfer-window signing from Paris Saint-Germain, fitted perfectly in the back three alongside a rejuvenated Gary Cahill and Spaniard Cesar Azpilicueta.
With goal threat Diego Costa happy to lead the line alone, the clever and technically brilliant pairing of Pedro and Eden Hazard enjoyed greater freedom to play off the front line. The ball-winning and protection offered by Nemanja Matic and the outstanding N’Golo Kante in the center of the field allowed the wingbacks to advance and saved Pedro and Hazard from too much defensive work.
There is an appealing blend of solid Italian organization, Spanish tactical awareness and individual talent that bodes well for the Champions League. Chelsea also plays with the kind of formation — capable of attacking with numbers and potency but being compact and organized without the ball — that works so well in European football. Against Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich, teams have to be willing to close down space and defend for long periods but need pace and decisiveness when they get a chance to counterattack. Conte’s side has shown an ability to manage games for long periods and get wins on days when, for whatever reason, things haven’t quite clicked.
The big question now is whether Conte can make the necessary expansion of his squad size without disrupting the recipe that has worked so well for him so far. He will need an alternative to Diego Costa in attack and someone who can fill in for Pedro and Hazard when they take a break from the Premier League. Conte may look to alternatives or upgrades at the wingback positions. As many a top level manager can vouch, bringing in extra quality and options can also create extra headaches.
But like handling the extra duties of the Champions League, those are the kind of problems that top coaches such as Conte are expected to handle. The Italian has risen to the challenge of his first season in England in exemplary fashion. Who would now bet against him getting Chelsea at least close to repeating their European title of 2012?
Simon Evans is a Reuters soccer correspondent based in Northern England.