With Eddie Howe considered one of the brightest up-and-coming managers in the Premier League, it was clear that he had done his homework before his Bournemouth side visited The Bridge on Boxing Day. That their mirror formation could find no way to trouble Chelsea as The Blues strolled to a 3-0 win without the midfield energy of N’Golo Kante or the current best centre-forward in Europe Diego da Silva Costa is a testament to Antonio Conte’s tactical judgement and Chelsea’s strength in depth.
Most expected Michy Batshuayi to come in as a straight swap for the suspended Costa, yet Conte surprised us all by playing Eden Hazard up top as a false 9 ably supported by last year’s player of the season Willian and Pedro Rodriguez. Pedro is now suspended for the visit of Stoke, yet despite some impressive performances by the Spanish winger, it’s unlikely Conte will be too concerned. If this side is able to not only cope, but put in a superb attacking performance without the influential Kante and sublime Costa, then there should be no worries about the future unavailability of certain players.
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In attack, as we’ve seen already, the team is amply equipped to deal with the loss of Costa and you suspect Batshuayi will be presented with more game time during the title run.
In midfield Cesc Fabregas has already proven to be very useful in deputising for missing players and also offers Chelsea a plan B to unlock the most resilient of defences. With Hazard, Pedro, Nemanja Matic, Willian and Kante all missing games at some point during this run of victories, it’s clear that there is enough there to survive when a man is down. If there is the need Nathaniel Chalobah or Ruben Loftus-Cheek are standing in the wings and are clever enough to make the system work, although the Oscar money might be burning a hole in Conte’s pocket, so it couldn’t hurt to strengthen this position.
In defence, we find the six players who have been started every fixture as the Blues have gone on to win 12 Premier League games in a row. Thibaut Courtois has been in immense form this season and is proof that a world-class goalkeeper can be worth over 10 points a season. How close would Liverpool be right now if they had a keeper with the ability and serenity of Courtois? Asmir Begovic represents adequate cover for the goalkeeper position and it’s hard to think of a more accomplished keeper in the Premier League who is warming the bench.
The back three of Cesar Azpilicueta, David Luiz and Gary Cahill are criticised as individuals, unfairly most of the time, but as a trio have been rocks at the back. With 10 clean sheets preserved during this staggering run of wins, the critics have been silenced and no one is calling Luiz a clown anymore. With John Terry, Kurt Zouma and Branislav Ivanovic waiting to fill their shoes should a suspension or injury occur, there is proficient cover available, although you would be worried about their ability to seamlessly slot into the team.
In the wingback roles, Conte has the revelation that has been Victor Moses and the enhanced Marcos Alonso and it’s in this position that the manager might need to consider investing in back-up players during the January transfer window. Although Azpilicuete could move over to cover Alonso, it seems foolish to break up unnecessarily the back three and if Moses is unavailable no one wants to see Ivanovic try to marshal the right side of Chelsea’s defence again.
It’s been an incredible run of consecutive wins now and it’s looking more likely that Conte’s team will be able to beat Arsenal’s record of 14 straight Premier League wins in a row. The opportunity to equal Arsenal’s record will come against title rivals Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane and it will be interesting to see what tips emerge as the Chelsea v Spurs grudge match continues. Yet cover for Moses and Alonso represents a weakness and should be strengthened without delay or the chasing pack could be given the opportunity to knock Conte’s Chelsea from the summit of the Premier League.