What Is It To Be A Chelsea Player
These are some of the statistical records which are now held by Chelsea Football Club: the most goals scored in a season, the least goals conceded in a season, the most points achieved in a season, the joint longest league winning run in a season, the most victories in a season and the longest league home unbeaten run (stretching over 4 seasons from 2004/5 to 2007/8). These are impressive records and indicative of the success the club has had under Roman Abramovich’s ownership. Achieved under various managers, with different styles and different tenure lengths, it also shows the power of the axis that has driven the club over the same period. At least one of John Terry, Peter Cech, Didier Drogba or Frank Lampard have been at the heart of all the club’s achievements for nearly 2 decades. However, they have also been ably assisted by skilful deputies like Ricardo Carvalho, Ashley Cole, Claude Makelele, William Gallas, Branislav Ivanovic and John Obi Mikel who bought into the same mentality and ethic. Then there’s a host of the lesser lights that don’t get the praise but who often gave the platform for the bigger names to shine. Little is said of the likes of Florent Malouda, Nicholas Anelka, Raul Meireles and Alex whose best form and effort was often critical to the key successes.
The combination of all these categories of Chelsea player delivered these record breaking statistics. Their combined efforts (together with a few notable others) should be acknowledged in a full analysis of how Chelsea became so successful, so consistently. From them, a mentality was built and perpetuated that has sustained 15 trophies over the last 17 seasons at Chelsea.
Seen in this light, Antonio Conte’s impact is less radical than would appear. While his tactical innovation in bringing 3 at the back to a country of back 4’s is unquestioned, the essence of his success is in restoring the Chelsea mentality and re-installing it into the newest Chelsea generation.
To watch David Luiz, Gary Cahill and Cesar Azpilicueta is to watch the expression of so much of attitude that characterised, say, a Mourinho team. First, the team buying into a collective idea of play and organisation. After the heavy defeat to Arsenal, Conte could have been forgiven for wondering whether his work was cut out, even with a back 4 the players were used to. However, by changing the system to 3-4-3/3-4-2-1, he took the risk that he could tap into the better aspects of his players in rising to a challenge.
From October onwards, we saw all the best aspects of the teams that have delivered Chelsea so much success. The sublimation of the individual to the team as evidenced by David Luiz playing with heavy strapping for a swathe of the season. The constant desire for improvement, as evidenced by Gary Cahill. Cahill’s withering self-criticism after the away defeat to Arsenal in September was followed by his key role in Chelsea keeping league clean sheets for 2 months afterwards. Next the durability of even the flair players, best exemplified by Eden Hazard who has now made 34 league appearances, despite being the second most fouled player in the league. And then of course, N’Golo Kante who achieves the impossible of making Frank Lampard’s stamina look positively pedestrian. Tellingly, it was West Brom away, so often a place of confirmed trouble for a Chelsea manager, that became the title coronation game
The keys to Chelsea’s success lie here. Mental strength, physical durability and collective sacrifice. Antonio Conte has focused Chelsea players on the starting point for their work. These are seeds for Chelsea title wins, regularly achieved by the breaking of league records. Whatever critics will say about aesthetics, the secret to Chelsea success lies with these qualities being passed from generation of player to generation of player. As Didier Drogba said after the Champions League final in 2012, there’s a critical importance not just in winning but in showing what is to be a Chelsea player.