Big loss at Arsenal served as spark for Chelsea's Premier League title run
MANCHESTER, England (AP) — If, as widely expected, Chelsea goes on to lift the Premier League trophy, one game in its title-winning campaign will surely be remembered as the most significant for manager Antonio Conte.
Forget the 4-0 rout of Manchester United in October when returning manager Jose Mourinho was humiliated. Or the 5-0 victory over Everton in November when everything went right and Eden Hazard briefly resembled Lionel Messi. Or even the come-from-behind win at Manchester City the following month that firmly installed the team as title favorite.
The defining 90 minutes of Chelsea's season will likely be a loss that led to some serious soul-searching and, critically, a change in formation.
A 3-0 loss at Arsenal on Sept. 24 bewildered Conte. He saw his team playing as individuals, with the wrong attitude, the wrong balance and with no identity. The only good thing to come out of that ill-fated trip to Emirates Stadium was a second-half switch to a 3-4-3 formation, which finally put Conte's imprint on his new side and was there to stay.
From a low ebb—eighth in the standings, to be precise—Chelsea hasn't looked back. Fifteen wins from 17 matches later, Chelsea hosts Arsenal for their return game on Saturday with a nine-point lead and with most observers saying the title has been wrapped up.
"I think," Conte said, "this could be a good chance for us to show that, now, we are a totally different team."
That's already been proven. David Luiz looks like a different player with more freedom as a libero in a back three. Unheralded pair Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses have excelled as wingbacks, central midfielder N'Golo Kante is possibly the most influential player in the league, while forwards Hazard and Pedro Rodriguez have been outstanding without having so much defensive responsibility as part of a front three with top-scorer Diego Costa.
The team is more street-wise and organized, as shown in the 1-1 draw at Liverpool on Tuesday when Chelsea absorbed lots of early pressure from the home side before growing into the game and being a late penalty miss from Costa away from winning.
Then there's Arsenal, which was at the height of its powers in the first half of that September game against Chelsea. But, as usual, Arsene Wenger's team hasn't lived up to expectations and a 2-1 home loss to Watford on Tuesday exposed its flaws and led to the coach questioning whether his players were "mentally ready" for the game.
They will have to be at Stamford Bridge on Saturday, because a loss would almost certainly knock them out of title contention. Arsenal is in third place, tied on points with second-place Tottenham with 15 matches remaining.
A midfield crisis has hit Arsenal just at the wrong time, with Granit Xhaka suspended, Mohamed Elneny at the African Cup of Nations with Egypt, Jack Wilshere out on loan, and Aaron Ramsey joining Santi Cazorla on the injured list.
Backups Francis Coquelin and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain appear to be Wenger's only midfield options for the weekend.
Beat Arsenal, and Chelsea would have made it through the toughest week of its run-in unscathed. Surely there will be no stopping the Blues then.