The moment where it all changed for Chelsea

It’s the 55th minute at the Emirates Stadium on Saturday, September 24, 2016, Arsenal are leading Chelsea 3-0 and the title is about to be decided.
The moment where it all changed for Chelsea

Did anyone inside the stadium notice? Did supporters, journalists or television pundits give more than a fleeting glance to the arrival of Marcos Alonso, who was making his league debut after signing from Fiorentina for €28m?

Maybe Arsenal fans did — but only because they were having a good chuckle at the fate of Cesc Fabregas as he trudged off the field, long-faced and frustrated as jeers rang around the ground.

The rest of us, busily taking in the enormity of a hugely convincing victory for Arsenal over the old enemy as Antonio Conte attempted to shore up his defence and keep the red hordes at bay, just looked away. And yet that was the moment when everything in the season changed.

It was the moment when Chelsea went three at the back, the moment when David Luiz grew up, the moment when N’Golo Kante found his feet, the moment when Conte’s drive for tactical and technical excellence saw his team set off on an unexpected road trip to the top of the Premier League.

Of course, no-one really noticed at the time. The BBC report described Chelsea as ‘an old and jaded side’ and referenced the fact it was Conte’s heaviest defeat since 2010 when his Siena side lost by the same score to Empoli — but Conte’s post-match words at least hinted at what was to come.

He said: “After today we are thinking we must work a lot because we are a great team only on paper. It is always a team problem rather than individuals. We have not got the balance and now is the moment to consider everything. We must reflect to find the right way.”

Well, Chelsea did find the right way.

Their response to that defeat included winning 13 matches in a row between October 30 and December 31 — and they now face Arsenal at Stamford Bridge sitting top of the table and already nine points ahead of their London rivals.

It’s enough to put all those bad memories in the past — although Conte refuses to forget.

“I always remember it,” he said. “That performance was a shock for me. My teams are not used to conceding three goals after the first half. I don’t want this and we have worked a lot to avoid this. When this happened, it was a shock and I tried to transfer this shock on to my players, to avoid it happening again. It’s important to remember this defeat because it was a bad defeat — and in my mind — it is always present. I hope today it will also be in the minds of my players.”

Conte certainly used the setback to change Chelsea’s season but, as it turns out, there was also an element of fortune in the way he stumbled upon a system which brought the best out of key players such as Luiz, Eden Hazard, Victor Moses and Kante because remarkably the Italian insists his players hadn’t even practiced it in advance.

“No, no, the first time was during the game,” he said “Never before. I’d like to tell you the truth: In my mind, there was this option. I knew I had the players for this season, but we’d never tried this solution in our training sessions. I always played with four at the back.”

It just goes to show how a title challenge can hang on the smallest details because with hindsight the new system suited his players perfectly.

It meant the end for captain John Terry, who had missed the Arsenal game through injury, but on the plus side it rejuvenated so many players ahead of him as Luiz became the fulcrum of the side and Kante began to produce the kind of form he showed in Leicester’s title victory, freeing Hazard to provide magic ahead of him.

Only yesterday Arsene Wenger admitted he tried twice to sign the energetic Kante but was thwarted by Chelsea’s financial muscle, a bitter pill when you consider how influential the midfielder has been since that defining day at the Emirates.

By contrast, defeat at Stamford Bridge today would leave Arsenal in all kinds of trouble in the title race — 12 points behind the leaders with 14 matches to play — and yet there is no sense of celebration in the home stands just yet.

“This game will be very difficult and I think it’s important to remember the first game against Arsenal,” said Conte. “I think a lot of things have changed now but we must pay great attention. Yes, if we beat them it will be for sure a good hit for us — to take three points and also to have Arsenal 12 points away. But it will also be a tough game and we must be focused.

“I have a bit of experience in this type of situation as a footballer and a manager, and I want to keep our concentration very high because we must know anything can still happen.”

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