Chelsea are top of the Premier League, Antonio Conte is the toast of English football and Jose Mourinho is not a happy man.
“My team is playing very well,” Mourinho said after his Manchester United side beat struggling champions Leicester City 3-0 at the King Power Stadium to move within two points of the top four earlier this month. He didn’t stop there.
“But for many, many years in my career — especially in this country when my teams were ruthless and when my teams were phenomenal defensively and very good on the counter-attack — I listened, week after week, how that was not enough in spite of winning the [Premier League] title three times,” he added.
“It looks like, this season, to be phenomenal defensively and in counter-attack is art, so it is a big change in England.”
Mourinho’s main point is a recurring theme of his career: that he doesn’t get the praise he deserves for his achievements and the manner in which his teams succeed. The implication is that for all the fanfare, Conte is dominating English football with the same principles that underpinned the triumphs of his predecessor.
Many have dismissed Mourinho’s comments as the words of a bitter man, stung by Conte’s remarkable success in eliminating the “palpable discord” that wrecked Chelsea’s Premier League title defence last season and returning them to the top of the table. But does he have a point?
For much of Mourinho’s second spell Chelsea’s attacking system was pragmatic and efficient, built on exploiting transitions and set-pieces. Comparing the statistics from then with now, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Conte has made smart tweaks rather than a drastic overhaul.
Chelsea average 525.4 completed passes per Premier League match this season, a number not vastly removed from both the triumphant 2014-15 campaign (533.4) and the disastrous title defence of 2015-16 (517.5). The average share of possession is down to 53.7 percent under Conte, but only from 54.4 percent last term.
This season the Blues are significantly more direct, however, attempting 67 long passes per game — five more than the highest tally reached in Mourinho’s second spell. Many of these are either to send teammates racing in behind opposition defences or cross-field balls intended to quickly switch the point of attack.
Width is key in Conte’s 3-4-3 system, with Marcus Alonso and Victor Moses operating as auxiliary wingers when Chelsea push forward. Yet the Blues are actually attempting fewer crosses per game (19) than in all but one of Mourinho’s last three seasons in charge.
Instead they run with the ball more; Chelsea are attempting a Premier League-high 21.9 dribbles per match and succeeding with 14.3; even in 2014-15 Mourinho’s men could only manage 12.9. Eden Hazard (2nd), Diego Costa (28th), Willian (30th), Moses (32nd) and Pedro Rodriguez (42nd) all rank in the division’s top 50 players for successful dribbles per game this season.
Carrying the ball upfield with pace has yielded significant rewards, as Chelsea have scored four goals from counter-attacks. It is the most they have managed in a single campaign since Mourinho’s first season back at Stamford Bridge in 2013-14, and only Manchester City can boast as many in the Premier League.
Set-pieces continue to be a fruitful attacking option, despite the bizarre fact that Chelsea had not scored or conceded a headed goal in the Premier League this season until Costa’s winner against Crystal Palace on Dec. 17. Mourinho’s teams reached double figures for set-piece goals in each of his last three years in charge, and Conte’s men already have nine.
Overall this Chelsea team are on pace to score 79 Premier League goals this season, six more than Mourinho’s most prolific Blues side managed in 2014-15.
Yet their totals for shots per game (14.2) and shots on target per game (5.1) are lower than both of Mourinho’s final two full seasons in charge, and there has been no seismic shift in the areas from which the Blues have taken their shots — the finishing has simply been more clinical.
It is at the other end where Conte has made his greatest impact. Chelsea’s defence has been spectacular since the switch to 3-4-3 in September, conceding just eight goals in 18 Premier League matches and keeping 12 clean sheets.
Even more impressive is that the Blues are giving up just 8.4 shots per game on average this season; the lowest Mourinho managed in his second spell was 10.3. The introduction of summer signing N’Golo Kante, who ranks third in the Premier League for tackles per game (3.6) and also averages 2.4 interceptions, into the heart of midfield has clearly been transformative.
Chelsea are forcing opponents to take 45 percent of their shots from outside the penalty area, the fourth-highest percentage in the Premier League. This is a credit to the work of Kante and above all to Conte’s defensive system, which has given the Blues a solidity and balance that should make them champions.
Whatever the motives for his comments, Mourinho is justified when he claims that this Chelsea team isn’t unrecognisable from the one he built. But while what Conte is doing this season may not be art, that doesn’t make it any less impressive.