Exactly a year ago, Chelsea were three points above the relegation zone, sandwiched between Bournemouth and Norwich City, with 18 points through 17 games. They’d won five, drawn three, lost nine, and conceded six more goals than they’d scored. José Mourinho had just been fired, and their 2014–15 Premier League title run seemed like a dream or a parallel universe.
Today, Chelsea are 29 points clear of the relegation zone, sandwiched between the sky and Liverpool, with 43 points through 17 games. They’ve won 14, drawn one, lost two, and scored 24 more goals than they’ve conceded. Antonio Conte is the best manager in the world, and the 2014–15 Premier League title looks much more like reality than whatever happened last year.
Barring something historically abnormal, Chelsea are going to win their second Premier League title in three seasons. Except Chelsea’s collapse last season was historically abnormal, as was Leicester City’s rise (as was the Brexit vote, as was Trump’s — OK, I’ll stop). So why write off any weirdness without even half of the season gone?
Because despite a league-best goal differential and a six-point lead on second place, Conte and Co. are even better than their record suggests.
Back on September 24, Chelsea had just taken back-to-back uppercuts from Liverpool and Arsenal. Liverpool took a 2–1 win at Stamford Bridge, thanks to a dominant first half and Jordan Henderson’s Metaphysics. Then Arsenal made it look like the Blues were playing whatever the soccer version of dizzy bat is, pummeling Chelsea so badly that N’Golo Kanté tried walking for the first time in his life en route to a 3–0 loss at the Emirates Stadium. Chelsea had 10 points from six games, and were eight points back from first-place Manchester City.
Then Conte shuffled things around, started playing a 3–4–3, and here we are: Chelsea have 11 wins out of 11 since the formation shift. They’ve beaten Manchester City, Tottenham, and Manchester United. They’ve scored 25 goals and allowed two. Kanté is back to doing the work of multiple midfielders, Pedro looks like the world-class winger from his Barcelona days, Victor Moses is … good (?), Diego Costa is a well-behaved battering ram, Cesc Fabregas is the world’s best 12th man, “David Luiz” has become David Luiz — in short, it’s all clicking in a seamless and sustainable-feeling way.
Even if you wanted to argue that Chelsea are not, in fact, the best team in the league, results more closely matching performances is still not going to be enough for anyone to stop them. Liverpool and Manchester City and even Tottenham have better underlying numbers on the year, but for one of them to catch Chelsea, they’d have to be so much better than Conte’s club, who are currently on pace for a Premier League–record 96 points, that it would defy belief. As Mike Goodman wrote for ESPN Insider:
Liverpool did win in Week 17, preserving the already-thin margins of the title race, but since Philippe Coutinho got hurt in late November, the Reds’ attack hasn’t looked like the all-devouring monster it was earlier in the year. The club also will lose arguably its best player, Sadio Mané, to the Africa Cup of Nations in January. Plus, the congested holiday fixture list just happens to be kindest to Chelsea and rudest to Liverpool.
So maybe City catches Chelsea instead? Well, they just lost their other best midfielder, Ilkay Gundogan, for the season. They have European football to worry about (Chelsea does not). And their defense is still giving up better shots than any team in the top 12.
Chelsea still have potential issues: Costa is scoring basically every time he shoots and there’s always the chance he picks up the ball, stabs it with a knife, and gets suspended for a few games. Plus, they haven’t had to deal with any injuries to key players like Costa, Kanté, or Eden Hazard. And maybe the machine sputters to a halt without one of them. But even then, all of those things would have to go wrong, and either Liverpool or City would have to fix their current problems and then also take a performance leap to catch Chelsea.
A year after this same group of players had corroded into an uninspiring mess, Conte has added in Kanté and a few others, run them up and over a wall, mixed things around, and put together one of the more dominant runs in recent Premier League history. Of course, things at Chelsea seem to break bad as quickly as they turn around, and after the past year, we know better than ever that low-probability events can and do happen — but that doesn’t mean they always will.