MASTERFUL CONTE MAKES DREAMERS OF WOULD-BE CHAMPIONS CHELSEA
When Mesut Ozil made it 3-0 to Arsenal after 40 minutes, the warm late September air must have smelt particularly sweet for Arsene Wenger.
So long the Gunners' tormentors in the barren second half of the Frenchman's reign, Wenger and his players had finally, clinically, put Chelsea to the sword at Emirates Stadium.
The veteran's bete noire Jose Mourinho was out of the way and his successor Antonio Conte would surely take plenty of time to recover from this humbling, coming as it did on the back of being outclassed at home to Liverpool.
But little did Wenger know, 10 minutes into the second half, everything had crystalised perfectly for the former Juventus boss in the other technical area.
Conte would do it his way from now on. Winning the Premier League playing three at the back is impossible, so common consensus told him. As a disjointed line-up flailed before his eyes he decided it was time to find out.
Marcos Alonso replaced Cesc Fabregas, much to the merriment of his one-time admirers in north London, and Chelsea switched to 3-4-2-1. It stemmed the flow of goals but few could have anticipated the turnaround that would follow.
Glory from the ashes of defeat is a sporting narrative adored by fans and Hollywood directors alike, but rarely has it occurred so emphatically in reality than at Stamford Bridge this season.
Conte says September's defeat away against Arsenal is always on his mind, and he hopes it is on the mind of his players too. #CFC-- Chelsea FC (@ChelseaFC) February 3, 2017
Chelsea's first start with the formation that gave their head coach glory in Turin and restored pride to his national team brought a 2-0 win at Hull City, the first of 13 top-flight victories in succession.
That Premier League record-equalling run appears to have turned a keenly anticipated title scrap into a procession as Arsenal enter Saturday's return game nine points back in third.
Tottenham - the only other team above the Gunners and on mere goal difference - eventually halted the juggernaut with a rousing 2-0 win at White Hart Lane, Mauricio Pochettino matching Conte's set-up man-for-man and besting it.
But the Argentine experienced teething problems when initially introducing three at the back as a tactical variation at Spurs and Pep Guardiola has seemingly shelved plans to use his more attacking take on the system at Manchester City.
Other Premier League managers have sought to follow Conte's lead but the near instant fluidity his Chelsea found in their new shape was something to behold.
Cesar Azpilicueta and Gary Cahill are wide centre-backs comfortable in bringing the ball out and building the foundations of attacks. In between them, Davd Luiz is now a Rolls Royce and not a showy sports car spluttering around in second gear.
Out wide, opposite Alonso, Victor Moses has arguably been the revelation of the season, while N'Golo Kante moving his Leicester City brilliance to west London has dragged Nemanja Matic out of his lingering malaise.
In front of this magnificent seven, Eden Hazard and Pedro can make merry, operating far closer to Diego Costa than earlier this season and to devastating effect.
Conte's reputation as a razor-sharp tactician has been enhanced. This Chelsea side might be his masterpiece.
Wenger joined a chorus of his colleagues by noting on Friday that midweeks uninterrupted by European football have granted Conte greater time for fine tuning, but the switch from also-rans to trailblazers occurred too swiftly for this to be the only factor.
At Euro 2016, where his swansong as Italy boss dethroned European champions Spain before ending on penalties at the hands of world champions Germany, Conte made big play of his ambition to foster a club ethos within a playing group not at the standard of great Azzurri teams and short on time together.
After a man-of-the-match showing against Spain, Juventus defender Leonardo Bonucci explained this was not all just hot air.
"Mr Conte is important as a coach that is able to really implement a game plan. He is more important in every match," Bonucci said.
"I think that this process that started two years ago is absolutely essential. This national side is shorn of great talent so we have to come together as a team.
"We have to have a playing style and I think that Antonio Conte really is the master in this area."
"As the coach has said, we need to be 23 men and 23 dreamers."
Conte has since made dreamers of a squad that 12 months ago appeared fractured beyond repair. Even an Arsenal win is unlikely to bring them crashing back to reality just yet.
WINNING THE LEAGUE AT A KANTE
Wenger identified Chelsea's midfield lynchpin as the key man in their title charge, following a magnificent showing in Tuesday's 1-1 draw at Liverpool, and admitted to twice trying to buy the player. These Opta statistics go some way to explaining why the 25-year-old is a man in demand.
- Kante's incredible tackling stats in Tuesday's 1-1 draw at Liverpool garnered considerable attention, as he went in on opponents 14 times. David Luiz and Victor Moses were the only other Chelsea players to make more than one.
- This tallies with his work at Leicester last season, where the France international's 175 tackles and 5.22 per game represented league bests. This time around, six players - including his old City colleague Danny Drinkwater - have made a greater frequency of tackles per 90 minutes.
- Playing in a more possession-orientated Chelsea side, Kante has adapted impressively to changed surroundings. His passes per 90 minutes are up from 43.18 to 61.84 and at an improved accuracy (81.64 per cent to 87.8 per cent).
- He has already made more successful passes in the opposition half (699) this season than last (657) in 15 fewer matches.