Three points from Chelsea 3-0 Leicester in the Premier League on Saturday.
In Saturday’s battle of the last two English title-winners, only one side lived up to the billing as a resurgent Chelsea destroyed Leicester City 3-0.
Chelsea boss Antonio Conte has drastically changed his formation to a 3-4-3 and that has completely changed the mood at the club. Where they had recently been dysfunctional, they were rampant here, regularly ripping the champions apart.
Defeat at Stamford Bridge represented a continuation of Leicester’s season so far; this their third heavy defeat to one of the big clubs in the opening eight games. Claudio Ranieri is clearly concentrating on Europe, as signalled by resting Islam Slimani and Riyad Mahrez for the Champions League match at home to Copenhagen on Tuesday.
There was no resting or let-up with Chelsea, though. They went at Leicester from the off in such impressively driven style. The new formation brought a new drive. Everything clicked — it took just seven minutes for the rampant Diego Costa to score his seventh goal in eight league games, running on to Nemanja Matic’s flick from a corner to drive the ball past Kasper Schmeichel from close range.
Leicester’s centre-halves could have done better, but they were soon engulfed, and Chelsea could easily have been 4-0 up in the way Manchester United were against the champions just a few weeks ago.
On 28 minutes, the mostly excellent David Luiz smashed a brilliantly dipping free kick off the bar. It wasn’t long until it was 2-0, as Pedro’s flick on the break brought chaos in the Leicester backline.
Robert Huth and Luis Hernandez almost ran into each other, allowing Eden Hazard to easily round Schmeichel to score. Luiz stung the keeper’s hands from another powerful free kick just before half time and Chelsea then temporarily sat off, with Ranieri introducing Mahrez and Slimani.
They were still so willing and able to catch Leicester on the counter, though, with Victor Moses having a one-on-one well saved by Schmeichel from a fine N’Golo Kante through ball. The former Leicester midfielder almost got a goal of his own, with Wes Morgan blocking a close-range shot, before Moses finally scored with the goal of the game. Substitute Nathaniel Chalobah supremely backheeled through for Moses to slide the ball home and complete Leicester’s misery.
As Conte finally went to three at the back, the question is whether he has figured out his primary formation for the season.
While this win has to be put in the context of an under-performing and under-strength Leicester, there was an impressive balance to Chelsea not seen in any of their games against any moderately good sides. That the balance came here may be all the more pointed, and not just because it was against the champions.
Ranieri opted to go for both Jamie Vardy and Ahmed Musa up front, clearly intending to exploit the home backline’s susceptibility to pace. But Chelsea were not caught out once in that way. The defence’s positioning meant there was always a man over, with Luiz at one point easily dispossessing Vardy. Even the recently troubled Gary Cahill was generally solid.
Chelsea were able to stretch Leicester in a way that has usually come at a cost for them in recent games. There was an impressive thrust to their attacking, but with none of the wide gaps seen most pointedly in the dismal 3-0 defeat to Arsenal.
It’s early days, but this new formation may help Conte close the gap above Chelsea in the Premier League table.
Leicester, who have now lost by three goals to Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea already this term, are missing more than Kante’s drive since he moved to Stamford Bridge. He was so important to the Foxes last season because of the way his running pinned his team together. His movement meant Morgan and Huth could stay in the central defensive positions so their lack of pace wasn’t so exposed. He also occupied opposition midfields so there was more space for the rest of Leicester’s attackers to do damage. But Ranieri’s decision to rest Mahrez and Slimani removed some of their creativity and meant they couldn’t supply the pace of Musa and Vardy at all.
It was a concern there was almost no discernible shape to their midfield but the worry is relative here. While Leicester with Kante are a different proposition, there is a strong argument that nothing is actually wrong with them — they are simply returning to their natural level. Last season they supremely made the best of every situation, but it was freakish campaign, right down to the under-performance of so many big clubs.
Now, the momentum has been disrupted, as has their midfield. Opposition teams are more attuned to what they do, while they also have an eye on the Champions League, as Saturday’s lineup indicated.
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