In May last season, Chelsea carved out a gritty 1-0 win at West Brom to secure the Premier League title. This weekend’s comprehensive 4-0 win against the ‘Baggies’ did not confirm Chelsea as Champions as it did last May, but it might just rekindle some belief that they can maintain a challenge this season.
Some supporters, myself included, viewed this fixture with some trepidation, such has been the inconsistency of Chelsea this season. Would it be a repeat of the last match after the international break when Chelsea failed to turn up at Crystal Palace? West Brom were on a similar poor run. Surely lightening wouldn’t strike twice?
READ MORE: West Brom v Chelsea – how the match unfolded
And then there was the worrying issue of trying to break down the infamous stubbornness and organisation of a Tony Pulis team who would, of course, resort to tackles more familiar with the England v Australia rugby match unfolding some 134 miles south of the Hawthorns.
Unusually, the only way one could tell that Chelsea were playing a West Brom side bearing the hallmark of Pulis, was in some of the agricultural challenges. Claudio Yacob was a predictable offender and how he did not receive a red card for a challenge on Andreas Christensen only referee John Moss knows.
The key to the match was a cynical challenge by Gareth Barry on Eden Hazard. The Belgian magician, still limping several minutes later, angrily got a shot off which Ben Foster could only parry toward Alvaro Morata, who finished with the instincts of a striker in a rich vein of form.
Thereafter the result was never really in doubt.
Chelsea have now put together four Premier League wins in a row, with three clean sheets in the last three, their best run of the season.
Has Antonio Conte steadied the good ship Chelsea? It would appear so.
Like last season, Conte has had to make a significant change to the formation to turn the corner.
It made a lot of sense to change to a 3-5-2 against what was supposed to be a stern test against Manchester Unite in the previous fixture. Something needed to be done to mitigate United’s attacking threat, so stifling them in midfield by playing Timoue Bakayoko, N’Golo Kante and Cesc Fabregas worked very well.
But would Conte resort to two in the defensive midfield against teams who would provide less of a challenge? Well, the answer appears to be no.
As with the change to 3-4-3 last season, which was the key moment in Chelsea winning the title, Conte has adapted to take account of the opposition working Chelsea out tactically, and has devised a system to get the best out of his players.
Fabregas deserves a place in the team purely for his ability to pick a pass. On his day, he is one of the best in the country at doing just that, as his ball to Hazard for the fourth goal exemplified, as did his free-kick, weighted perfectly for Alonso to bury for the third goal. But few Chelsea supporters would support the idea that he is an adequate defensive midfielder next to Kante or Bakayoko.
Playing them as a three allows Fabregas to roam forward to link up with Hazard and provides defensive cover when a Chelsea attack breaks down. It also allows flexibility, shown by Bakayoko or Kante joining the attack, provided they have the discipline to cover for each other. Ultimately, the three-man midfield allows the team to get the best out of Fabregas, a conundrum that has remained unanswered for several seasons until now.
This tactical change has been accompanied by dispensing with two relatively wide players (or two number 10’s with freedom to roam) either side of Morata. Instead, Hazard is now playing more centrally, but given licence to roam and to link up with Morata.
This appears to be a marriage made in heaven, given the superb second goal where Morata cleverly flicked on a pass to Hazard, who scored his first of the afternoon, as well as Hazard’s shot setting Morata up for Chelsea’s first goal. More to the point, it may well get the best out of Eden Hazard longer term.
A player of his talent should be given every opportunity to control and affect the game. Playing him more centrally provides him with this opportunity. Playing Hazard on either flank means he sometimes disappears out of the game and, like Fabregas, it has been something of a conundrum in recent seasons. He is a playmaker, a number 10 and an immense talent. Perhaps the formation change to a 3-5-2 will go some way to getting the best out of him, so that he can truly reach his potential. Chelsea supporters have been hoping to see Hazard flourish like this over the last few seasons and would like nothing better than for him to seize the opportunity to be one of the best number 10’s in the world.
For all the exciting possibilities and parallels with last season that Conte’s tactical change means, Chelsea must now kick on and go on a run of wins equivalent to last season if they are to challenge for the title.
Chelsea have a big week ahead, with a tricky away trip to Qarabag on Wednesday, followed by a trip to Anfield to play Liverpool on Saturday. Winning both of those matches will tell us a lot more about whether the tactical change has given Chelsea the consistency to challenge for the title and, as we know from last season, the key to this is momentum.