Undue Conte caution culminates in third straight Chelsea stalemate

Alan O’Brien 

This was Chelsea’s third consecutive goalless draw in all competitions. And, given the damage wrought by Antonio Conte’s continuing 3-5-1-1 fixation, they were lucky to get it.

CHELEI

Puel pounces

Conte’s midweek decision to field a full-strength side in the Carabao Cup did not exactly help his side’s cause either. Claude Puel smelled blood, and pounced accordingly.

These days, when a top-six representative meets an also-ran, proceedings often degenerate into a tedious, 90-minute, attack-versus-defence drill. Puel, however, had other ideas, setting up Leicester City to prevail upon Blues fatigue.

Determined to divest himself of the reputation for dour football foisted on him by Southampton fans, the Frenchman again went for the jugular. Shinji Okazaki, preferred to Demarai Gray, set the tone, co-initiating a vicious high-press with Jamie Vardy. It was super-effective.

Forced long by Leicester’s squeeze, with Alvaro Morata unable to make it stick, Chelsea floundered throughout the first-half. Such opposition dominance, at Stamford Bridge, is exceedingly rare. Its imposition, by a side sitting outside the top-six, is even more unusual.

Diamond blights

Stranger still, however, was the Foxes’ failure to convert their absolute superiority into goals. Of Leicester’s twelve first-half chances, only one was directed on target. The first, and clearest-cut, saw Okazaki poke wide from close-range.

Ben Chilwell provided the key pass with a byline pull-back. Chelsea’s diamond midfield continually allowed the left-back to scamper freely into the final-third. Cesc Fabregas, positioned on the diamond’s right, was the prime culprit.

At least Fabregas’ midweek start stood as a convenient excuse for the Spaniard’s underperformance here. Not so Tiemoué Bakayoko.

Fresh from giving Mesut Ozil the run of the Emirates throughout Chelsea’s last Premier League engagement, Bakayoko flunked his defensive task again. Riyad Mahrez gave the Frenchman the perennial slip on this occasion, forcing Antonio Rudiger to advance into uncomfortable territory. Rudiger, too, looked jaded; the Chelsea defender most discommoded by Leicester’s high-press.

Gary Cahill was often summoned into last-ditch action prior to his first-half injury. If the England defender wasn’t covering for Rudiger, he was snuffing out Vardy’s usual left-channel supply line. With both Bakayoko and Fabregas out to lunch, Leicester’s midfielders were afforded plenty of opportunities to meet Vardy’s customary runs.

Balance and belated change

Conte’s tendency to include the off-form Bakayoko centres around his oft-stated desire for ‘balance’. Sacrificing one of the 3-4-2-1’s inside-forwards is a virtue, in his eyes, if the additional central-midfielder improves the side’s defensive fortunes. Yet the sense that Chelsea are losing more than they gain is now unavoidable.

The unsolvable condundrum posed by combining two inside-forwards with two wing-backs drove Chelsea to the title. Opposition defences, like Stoke City’s on December 30, struggle to quell both threats simultaneously.

Fielding a narrow midfield diamond instead, therefore, plays into opponents’ hands. And the rationale for selecting it at home, against a so-called also-ran, is particularly questionable.

No surprise then that Chelsea immediately improved on 57 minutes, upon the belated arrivals of both Willian and Pedro. Chilwell, once free, now found himself confronted and pinned back by the Brazilian. Two yellow cards quickly followed, both earned for fouling the former Shakhtar man. Leicester, shorn of their momentum, were forced into retreat for the remaining 20 minutes. They had, quite literally, missed their chance.

Hazard, whose Wednesday night start rendered him leggy and ineffectual, was hooked to facilitate 3-4-2-1’s return. But Conte’s change came too late to deny Leicester a much-merited result. Puel’s troops tucked into a narrow 4-4-1 shape, showing Chelsea the flanks. The resultant crosses were meat and drink for the impressive Harry Maguire and co.

Conclusion

Kudos, therefore, to Puel for his tactical bravery, that could and perhaps should have conjured an emphatic away victory. But this kind of attacking abandon, apt against tired opposition, isn’t always called for.

If anything, Leicester’s defensive fragility has ramped up under the Frenchman, with transitions proving particularly problematic. Especially when the likes of Gray and Mahrez are manning two of the three attacking positions behind Vardy.

The festive period thrashing of Huddersfield Town followed hot on the heels of a five-game winless run, in which Leicester’s midfield offered scant protection to its defence. This is, after all, a side that is used to sitting deep and breaking with speed; adaptation to a more progressive style-of-play will take time.

The passage of play leading up to Chilwell’s second booking sticks out, however, as further evidence that Puel may need to slow the revolutionary wheels slightly. The space in which Pedro picked up a rare Morata-created second ball was telling.

Both Wilfried Ndidi and his partner (Matty James on this occasion) were caught ahead of play again, allowing the Barcelona graduate to feed Willian. Chilwell was the fall guy, but the flaw was systemic. That Chelsea failed to exploit it here is a shocking indictment of Conte’s recent managerial maneuverings.

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