Chelsea travelled to the KCOM Stadium on Saturday afternoon to take on Hull City with quite a few questions hanging over their heads after the poor performances against Liverpool and Arsenal and a poor first half against Leicester.
The 2-0 victory over the Tigers answered a couple of those questions, but as manager Antonio Conte has been quick to point out, patience is required because this squad is still a work in progress.
Conte shows his willingness to change when the status quo was clearly not working.
One of the questions hanging over Chelsea before the Hull City match was pointed squarely at the manager. Could Conte’s reputation as a tactician be a bit exaggerated, since Chelsea’s defensive woes continue? Conte answered that on Saturday with a bold tactical change.
Since Conte was announced as manager, there has been speculation about Chelsea switching to a back three and what it might look like. The Italian initially resisted making that change. but after defeats against Liverpool and Arsenal, and seven goals conceded in three matches, something needed to change.
Conte switched to a back three on Saturday, though it seemed to be a mere suggestion of the system, given injuries at centre back. With John Terry and Kurt Zouma both out, Cesar Azpilicueta played as the third centre back, alongside Gary Cahill and David Luiz, with Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses playing as wing backs.
It was clear that the system is still a work in progress, as the first 45 minutes looked a bit disjointed as players were trying to get a feel for how to play in this system. But in the second half, the Blues found an extra gear, scoring both goals in the second half, but more importantly, they kept a clean sheet away from home.
Chelsea need to find a way to start matches with the intensity that they have at the end of matches.
Once again, Chelsea relied on second-half goals to give them their margin of victory. Granted, goals in the 61st and 67th minutes weren’t nearly as dramatic as late winners after the 80-minute mark, but it’s quite telling that the first half hasn’t been kind to the Blues.
The Blues have scored just 3 of their 12 goals in the first half of matches, and against both Liverpool and Arsenal, went into half-time facing deficits that they couldn’t overcome.
Against Hull, a slow start was expected since it was their first full match playing in a 3-4-2-1, but Hull could have been up 2-0 at the break if it weren’t for two good saves from Thibault Courtois.
More importantly, Chelsea have looked sluggish and ponderous early on in most matches, and it needs to be corrected before it becomes a serious problem, especially when better teams than Hull will make you pay for this complacency.
Diego Costa looks to be a man revived.
This is the Diego Costa that Chelsea supporters thought they were getting after his performances in the title-winning 2014-2015 campaign. So far this season, Diego Costa’s six goals leads the Premier League, but more importantly, he seems to be on his best behaviour, despite his four yellow cards this season – many of which were for dissent and based on the new rules.
Last season, Costa lost his way and became a bit of a liability. Rather than channel his aggression in a positive manner, he stepped on the pitch almost looking for a fight every time he played. It took his focus away from the game and also made him an easy target for opponents and referees alike.
It may be early yet, but Conte looks to have gotten through to Costa. The striker that looked to be the heir-apparent to Didier Drogba has returned this season, and in the last couple of weeks, Costa has cut out a lot of the unsavoury actions and started terrorising defenders once more.
Chelsea are a different proposition when Costa is on form as he is one of those rare strikers that can lead his line on his own with both physical and technical skill. If he keeps up this style of play, and his hamstring injuries don’t return, he is a striker that you can rely on for his goal return – important if the team is switching to a back three that uses the 3-4-2-1 setup.