Antonio Conte is pioneer and trailblazer, the man who may not just have changed Chelsea, but the Premier League. His influence is apparent in the league table, but also on teamsheets across England. He is a tactical revolutionary who is suddenly encountering the difficulties radicals sometimes face when their unorthodox ideas filter into the mainstream.
Without Conte, it is hard to imagine that 17 of the 20 top flight clubs would have played a back three at some stage this season. Without Conte, it is less likely that all of the top seven would have done. Even Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho, those obstinate devotees of a back four, have borrowed from his blueprint. The 3-4-2-1 formation Arsenal used at Middlesbrough on Monday was Conte-esque. Mourinho studied Conte’s handbook and concluded it was the best way to beat him on Sunday.
Mauricio Pochettino was the first to prove that imitation could be the sincerest form of victory. When Tottenham and Chelsea reconvene at Wembley on Saturday, it may be with Spurs again playing 3-4-2-1, looking to defeat Conte’s charges by mirroring them.
Tottenham’s January win helped illustrate that, commanding as Chelsea’s lead has been for much of the season, their players are not necessarily vastly better. Their squad is certainly not deeper. Theirs has been a triumph of mystery, strategy and geometry. They have got their angles and distances right, camouflaging individual shortcomings, confusing opponents, liberating flair players.
Rewind 20 years and British football, trapped in its 4-4-2 straitjacket, was baffled by the invasion of the No. 10s, materialising between the lines to wreak havoc. Quite apart from the considerable individual qualities of Eric Cantona, Dennis Bergkamp and Gianfranco Zola, the tactical failings of many a manager permitted them to excel.
Advance to the current day and Conte took that a stage further. Teams may now be accustomed to facing one No. 10, but not two. The freer roles afforded to Eden Hazard and Pedro, with fewer defensive responsibilities, have since been granted to Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen, even Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil. Conte’s scheme was too compelling, his results too convincing.
Given the way his Italy and Juventus teams played 3-5-2, it is unfair to say Conte stumbled on a solution. But it is logical to conclude it has gone far better than he could have envisaged. Twenty-one wins in 26 league games represents a stunning return, especially considering Marcos Alonso initially seemed a squad player and Victor Moses a makeshift wing-back.
Read the full article on eurosport.co.uk: How can Conte stay a step ahead of Tottenham in double quest?