Chelsea’s 1-0 defeat to Stoke at the bet365 Stadium was one of the lowest points in the club's dismal 2015/16 campaign.
Marko Arnautović struck the only goal of the game, Jose Mourinho watched from a hotel having been handed a one-match stadium ban and Chelsea slid to 16th in the table having lost the fixture.
Fast-forward some 16 months and things could not be more different. New manager Antonio Conte has made an instant impression at Stamford Bridge and a victory over Stoke this Saturday would see his side extend their lead at the top of the Premier League to a staggering 13 points.
Conte attributes this remarkable turnaround to a newfound team spirit, fostered in part by his effort to give every player the same amount of attention during training sessions, regardless of whether they are in his starting XI or not.
“When you have 21 players in the squad you have to give all the players the same level of importance and always pay great attention to every single player in training,” Conte said in his weekly news conference at Chelsea’s Cobham Training Centre.
“If you do not pay attention to one player in training and do not want to improve him, it is a lack of respect for that player. In this situation, it is right that a player would be unhappy.”
No two players demonstrate this improved team spirit better than Nemanja Matic and Cesc Fabregas.
Fabregas lost his position in Chelsea’s first-team to the Serbian at the beginning of the season but, rather than agitating for a move away from the club, he informed his employers that he was willing to knuckle down and convince Conte that he had an important part to play in the club’s title challenge.
After a long spell out of the team, Fabregas returned to Chelsea’s starting line-up in the 3-1 Premier League win against Swansea and played well enough to retain his spot for the 2-0 win away to West Ham.
And despite his spell on the substitute’s bench earlier in the season, only five other players in the Premier League have assisted more than the 7 goals he has had a hand in this season. Conte has been delighted with his impact and stressed ahead of the Stoke match how important it is for Chelsea to rotate the two midfielders.
“This season Cesc has shown himself to be a great professional but, above all, a great player,” Conte said. “This season he faced a new situation because in the past he has always played every single game. And it's not easy to change. But he has improved in all aspects and is a really important player.
“In the case of Fabregas and Matic it is important to manage the situation and see game by game. We are talking about two great players with different characteristics. Matic is more physical and more technical. Cesc gives other great qualities: great fantasy and assists.
“With both players at the top of their form, it is not easy for me to make the best decisions.”
Conte also offered encouragement to the younger players in his squad, although he conceded it may be necessary for some to go back out on loan in order to further their careers.
Chelsea possess a talented crop of younger players but the likes of Kurt Zouma, Nathan Aké, Nathaniel Chalobah and Ruben Loftus-Cheek have found opportunities in the league difficult to come by this season. The quartet have just 13 Premier League appearances between them this season.
Chelsea potential summer 2017 transfers
Chelsea potential summer 2017 transfers
1/9 IN: James Rodriguez
With Oscar departing for China, James Rodriguez could be the perfect long-term replacement for the Brazilian. Rodriguez hasn’t had much game time this season and might be looking for a move away from the Bernabeu. It looks like Chelsea will tussle with the likes of Manchester United to secure his signature.
2/9 IN: Ricardo Rodriguez
The 24-year-old Swiss international could be the perfect fit in Antonio Conte’s 3-4-3 formation. The Wolfsburg player is a massive threat from dead ball situations and loves to attack. Recent reports are suggesting that the Blues have beaten Arsenal to secure his services.
3/9 IN: Arturo Vidal
Conte is reportedly looking to bring his former employee to Stamford Bridge in a deal that could be worth up to £38 million. Bayern’s box-to-box midfielder played under the Italian tactician at Juventus where they reached the Champions League final, losing 3-1 to Barcelona.
4/9 IN: Federico Bernardeschi
Fiorentina winger Bernardeschi has been on sparkling form for the Viola this campaign. Conte took him to the Euros in the summer and he could provide solid competition for Victor Moses for the right-wing starting berth.
5/9 IN: Tiemoue Bakayoko
Monaco have been free-scoring this season but their whole team deserves credit. Bakayoko has been a mainstay in the defensive-midfield position, and his combative style has drawn comparisons to N’Golo Kante. Chelsea would have to dig deep to make this deal materialise, though.
6/9 IN: Franck Kessie
The 19-year-old has been the breakthrough star in Serie A this season. In an Atalanta side that has performed above expectations this campaign, Kessie has played an integral role. A lot of Europe’s elite are in pursuit of the Ivorian.
7/9 IN: Faouzi Ghoulam
After bringing Marcos Alonso in from Fiorentina last summer summer, Conte may want to provide some competition for the Spaniard and Ghoulam may well be the answer.
8/9 OUT: Michy Batshuayi
With Diego Costa performing so well, it is hard to see where the young Belgian fits in to Conte’s setup. French side Lille were left rebuffed after they reportedly lodged a loan bid which was rejected by the Blues, but it remains to be seen whether they will keep him at Stamford Bridge.
9/9 OUT: Branislav Ivanovic
After starting the first six games of the season, the Serbian defender has struggled to fight his way back into the Chelsea team. After a change of formation from Conte, it seems as though he might not suit the Italian’s style. Reports have also proposed that Barcelona may be in line for a shock swoop.
“The younger players must have the ambition to play in the first-team and that is normal. I want to see this, this ambition. That they want to show me they deserve to play with the first-team,” he added.
“It is important now to be focused on the present but when the right moment comes we will make the right situation for every player who is young and whether they need to go on loan to play.
"We will try to take the best decision for the player and for the club.”Reuse content