Date published: Monday 31st October 2016 9:15
It was Alex Ferguson who became the latest media personality to pass judgement on a title race that is enthralling before frost is even on the ground.
“It’s harder to predict than it was for many years. I think there are five potential candidates: Manchester City as favourites, Tottenham and Liverpool, but also Manchester United are still there if we get some consistency soon.”
It’s hardly surprising that Ferguson would include his former club in such a list – to fail to do so would be classed as mutiny – but the omission of Chelsea said plenty about their quiet progression under Antonio Conte. The Italian was keen to wave pointedly in Ferguson’s direction in his pre-match press conference.
“I respect a lot what he said, but I know that we are working very well,” Conte said, with admirable dignity. “I think we are now in a good way to improve and to become a team that can stay in contention until the end to get something. Our ambition must be always to play to win every game.”
At St Mary’s on Sunday, Conte let his players’ actions speak far louder than his own words. Southampton have only lost at home twice in the league in 2016; both times Chelsea were their opponents.
If this was pitched as a battle between two form teams, Chelsea achieved victory with consummate swagger. If the victory over Manchester United was at least partly mitigated by opposition incompetence, this was all about Chelsea’s excellence. If Ferguson deliberately omitted Chelsea from his list of title challengers, he may wish to re-think his assessment. Chelsea have won four consecutive league games, scoring 11 times without conceding. This was the equivalent of Paolo Maldini ending a game with crisp white shorts; there was not a scratch on Chelsea nor a hair out of place.
While Jose Mourinho, our early loser, insisted that there was “no problem” after the 0-0 draw at Burnley left United in eighth, Conte identified and solved his own issues with a minimum of fuss. Chelsea were defensively shambolic in defeats against Liverpool and Arsenal, so the Italian decided upon a change of formation and personnel. His side have immediately hit a streak of title-winning form. Chelsea are playing with the verve of a team enjoying themselves; it feels like 2014/15. Good players don’t just turn bad over a season, and the ‘class is permanent’ cliche leaps to mind.
One of the main reasons to absolve Mourinho of guilt for Manchester United’s form is the defensive frailties shared by Chris Smalling, Daley Blind and Marcos Rojo, yet you might retort that the best coaches find a way. What of the much-maligned Gary Cahill, much-derided David Luiz and the frankly surprising arrival of Marcos Alonso and inclusion of Victor Moses? We knew full well that Eden Hazard and Diego Costa were capable of magic, but Conte has taken an unlikely group and created a defence far greater than the sum of its parts.
Since the switch to 3-4-2-1, Chelsea have played four league games against Hull, Leicester, Manchester United and Southampton, and allowed only eight shots on target in total. Only Tottenham, Everton and Manchester City now now have a better defence, and Chelsea have scored six and seven more goals than the first two of those. This is a run to persuade everyone – Ferguson included – that they merit being taken seriously.
Mourinho, leaking his desires for a new central defender to his media friends, would do well to take Chelsea’s new-found resilience on board. Of the 12 players to start 20 or more league games in Chelsea’s woeful 2015/16 season, nine played a part at St Mary’s. While Conte is making restaurant quality food out of ingredients left for him in the cupboard, Chelsea’s former manager is frantically making a January shopping list. He’s making you look a fool, Jose.