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The Hidden Reason Behind Chelsea’s Stellar Season

No longer do people question if Chelsea will win the league, rather they ask why.

Chelsea beat Manchester City last night to maintain a seven-point lead over Tottenham, and now look like shoo-ins for the Premier League title. Spurs have long appeared to be the only team capable of challenging them, but their chances appear remote now with Harry Kane faces another sustained period on the sidelines.

Such is the profusion of positivity surrounding Chelsea, it’s easy to forget how deep they plunged into the doldrums last season.

Why so?

Perhaps the most obvious place to start is with the gaffer, Antonio Conte. The Italian has been irrepressible in everything he has done since arriving at Stamford Bridge.

Despite a rocky initial period, the now famous formation alteration he made during his side’s 3-0 loss at Arsenal has catapulted to the club to Premier League dominance not known since Mourinho’s first stint at the club over a decade ago. Chelsea supporters grimaced at the prospect of David Luiz re-joining the squad, but under the stewardship of Conte, he has been a player transformed. Positionally aware and comfortable on the ball, he appears to embody the tactical nous which has earned Chelsea their unassailable lead at the Premier League summit.

STRATFORD, ENGLAND - MARCH 06: Antonio Conte, Manager of Chelsea looks on during the Premier League match between West Ham United and Chelsea at London Stadium on March 6, 2017 in Stratford, England. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

And all this despite spending a fraction of what both his Manchester rivals saw fit to splurge in the Summer. The feat becomes even more impressive when one considers that he was at the helm of the Italian national team during Euro 2016, and thus had 6 fewer to weeks with his new club than his rivals.

The man in front of Luiz is also widely thought to underpin Chelsea’s rise from the ashes of last season. N’Golo Kanté was signed for £32m at the start of the year and has been scandalously good value. Never was this as obvious as last Monday night when he went up against Paul Pogba.. Kante made 43 more passes and while Pogba lost 16 duels Kante came off the worst in just 3. Add in Kante’s 10% better passing accuracy and the gulf between the players is scarcely believable.

Interestingly however, one could easily argue that the improvement of this term is largely thanks to someone’s absence rather than their presence. I speak, of course, of José Mourinho.

As is blatantly obvious, last year was an especially gruesome season for players of Chelsea’s calibre. Such is the fractious nature of any Mourinho management stint, the atmosphere at the club became increasingly toxic as the season prolonged, dragging the form of the players down with it. Such a cataclysmic ending was bad even by the standards of Mourinho, a man whose 3rd season meltdowns define him almost as much as his bulging trophy cabinet.

In choosing to side with Mourinho rather than the players last season, the Stamford Bridge faithful fanned the fire even further. Indeed, the opinion that in winning the league by 8 points the previous year, Mourinho had simply worked wonders with average players became widely touted at The Shed End. Mourinho had dragged these players to perform far beyond levels they were capable of, and a total Summer transfer overhaul was required. As evidenced by this season’s fare, such perceived wisdom could not have been further from the truth.

As pointed out in the excellent Scorecasting, written by Tobias Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim, violent swings in a team’s form are often dictated by ‘regression to the mean’ rather than whatever coaches or players are signed up during the off-season.  ‘Regression to the mean’ is the argument that following a particularly good or bad performance, statistics alone dictate that the team’s next season is likely to be more in line with what is typical for them to achieve.

In their words, the next performance is likely to ‘regress to the mean’, or ‘average’. As evidenced by Chelsea’s waltz to Premier League glory in 2014-15, last year’s effort was several chasms below the level one can typically expect from them. This season, has simply seen them regress to their mean.

The same argument could easily be made for Leicester City. Incredible as last season was, nobody truly believed that their players were of the quality to regularly challenge for Premier League honours.  The debate as to whether Vardy was better than Kane, which was commonplace last season, has been made to look daft with hindsight. Vardy’s form has regressed to the mean, or indeed below it, while Kane’s sustained brilliance over several seasons is testament to his proven class.

As fans and pundits it’s very tempting to simply assign vast changes in performances to a coach or a star player. Their contribution is evidenced by statistics, indeed we see it with our own eyes. More often than not however, the contribution of any one individual is grossly exaggerated, especially when the swings in performance are vast.

Conte and Kante have clearly been positive influences at Stamford Bridge this year, but the team’s entire upsurge in form can hardly be attributed to them. Unappealing as it sounds, statistics have likely played the biggest role of all.

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Author: The PA Team

This article was written by a member of The PA Team.