Exactly one year ago today Jose Mourinho was sacked by Chelsea as they lurched from one disastrous performance to the next. As Mourinho raged at doctors, players and officials, Chelsea imploded, mounting a pathetic defence of their title. Eden Hazard was substituting himself, Diego Costa was more worried about starting fights than scoring goals. Namanja Matic was stunningly being substituted after coming on as a substitute. The back four of John Terry, Branislav Ivanovich, Garry Cahill and Cesar Azpilicueta were getting skinned every week, appearing slow and paralysed by fear. Thibaut Courtois was longing publicly for a return to Real Madrid. Chelsea Fans turned on the likes of Costa, Hazard and Fabregas in the weeks after Mourinho's sacking as Chelsea sleep-walked their way through the rest of the season to finish in 10th place. Roman Abramovich was castigated as man without a plan and Chelsea were a squad of players seemingly in permanent decline.
Mourinho's aura and gift of winning at all costs had suddenly left him, leaving fans stunned and players stroppy as the Champions hovered around the relegation zone. Indeed, after fifteen games last year, Chelsea were a mess, sitting on just 16 points, embarrassingly just one point ahead of the relegation zone. The atmosphere could hardly have been more negative or toxic.
However fast forward twelve months and 16 games into this campaign, Chelsea have a record number of points, sitting on 40, stunningly 6 clear at the top of the table. In Antonio Conte, Chelsea may have indeed found their new special one. Conte has lifted the gloom at Stamford Bridge by turning the same squad of players that were sulking and quitting on Jose Mourinho into an outfit steamrolling its way to the top playing with a fervent intensity and discipline the Italian manager has installed into them. Chelsea are on a stunning run of form where they have achieved 10 straight victories, with 23 goals scored and just 2 conceded. After looking like also rans after consecutive losses to Liverpool and Arsenal, Chelsea are now threatening to put a gap on their rivals.
Chelsea are a team reborn, playing with a swagger and an intensity that has befuddled many of their fans, including myself. The same group of players that looked past it, or wanted out last year, are suddenly transformed again. Eden Hazard is back terrorising defences, rediscovering his eye for goal and gliding past hapless defenders. Diego Costa is bulldozing defenders, and is clearly the most feared striker in the Premier League. Costa is scoring plenty of goals goals, crucial match winning goals leaving his antics in the past. Gary Cahill and Namanja Matic are back being the rocks in the spine of the defence, and the midfield upon which Chelsea's success has been built on. So much so that John Terry can't even get a game and has had to make do with a spot on the bench.
Despite Conte not being able to attract the players he wanted in the Summer, there have been a few significant changes. Ngolo Kante has clearly been the signing of the Summer, destroying attacks, tackling like a demon, and covering every blade of grass in front of Chelsea's backline. Leicester City have fallen apart without Kante this year and he is a truly world class defensive midfield player, perhaps the best in the world. He is uncomplicated but extremely valuable and effective. Any length of absence in the run home for Kante would be I feel as significant if not more so then an injury to Hazard or Costa. He is Chelsea's answer to Claude Makelele and at 30 Million pounds a bargain in todays age of crazy money for footballers.
Victor Moses was a Chelsea misfit under Mourinho, being sent out on loan and failing to impress when given limited opportunities. Under Conte, Moses has turned into a very dangerous wing back, capable of stretching defences and getting up and down the sidelines like a terrier. Alongside the recently signed and relatively unheralded Marcus Alonso, the parihave made a reliable pair of wing backs in Conte's trusted 3-4-3 formation.
However, perhaps the biggest surprise for me has been the form of David Luiz in the centre of the Centre Back trio. I must admit to having raised eyebrows as a Chelsea fan when the Club re-bought David Luiz from PSG this summer. It seemed a desperate deadline day move by Conte and the Club, having swung and missed at a number of their first choice targets. As pundits lined up to castigate Chelsea and Luiz, Conte has turned Luiz into a polished and commanding central defender.
Whilst Luiz had been somewhat of a fan favourite at Stamford Bridge during his first spell from 2011 to 2014, he was never considered by the Chelsea fans generally as a reliable and trustworthy central defender. Indeed many of the Club's fans celebrated and hailed Jose Mourinho a genius when he sold Luiz to Paris for 50 Million Pounds in the summer of 2014, and when Chelsea went on to stroll to a League title twelve months later, Luiz returning to Chelsea would have seemed ludicrous and fanciful. Luiz was loved more at Chelsea for his moments of sheer brilliance and for his lively personality, however, now at least so far, he has been the rock on which Chelsea's defensive solidarity has been built.
I still think this side are capable of slipping up, and this title race is far from over. It was only a couple of months ago Liverpool and Arsenal looked far superior to Chelsea in head-to-head match ups. Manchester City could have been 3 goals up before they imploded to Chelsea at the Etihad in a pivotal match-up last month. Chelsea are still hugely reliant on Diego Costa's goals, and lack invention in the midfield in some games. Whilst Kante and Matic are proving a monstrous defensive combination, Chelsea do struggle for some real thrust as seen in gritty wins over battlers like Middlesbrough, West Brom and Sunderland overnight. However, one thing is for certain, Chelsea have the bit back between their teeth and they won't fear the likes of Liverpool and Arsenal, who have been shaky in the past when it comes the crunch.
When Mourinho was sacked a first time, his shadow loomed large over Stamford Bridge, and every manager that subsequently took the job. Fans clamoured for his return at every juncture. Mourinho is still a highly revered and loved figure around Stamford Bridge for his record three titles and six major trophies he won during his two spells. When Mourinho suffered the indignation of being beaten 4-0 on his return to Stamford Bridge two months ago, his return was greeted with little more than indifference, as the fans sang Conte's name. However, with Mourinho misfiring at United, and Conte forging his own reputation, there will be no clamour for a third return. The shadow of Mourinho's aura has been lifted around Stamford Bridge. Twelve months on from his sacking, the mood could hardly be more different.