One must applaud Antonio Conte for not only nabbing, but storming his way to, a Premier League title in his maiden season in England. His personality – which has proven to be as infectious as a Tower Hotel lunch buffet – and tactical nous guided the London club to an incredible thirty wins.
He had a good squad, a good coaching staff behind him and good financial support to reinforce if desired. The one thing he didn’t have, however – was European football.
Chelsea rattled off thirteen consecutive wins between October and December; right in the middle of the Champions League group stages.
Granted, winning any game is difficult – but when four of your rivals (actually, three, because one of them was Leicester City) are playing ultra-competitive, high-octane midweek ties, those weekend league fixtures very rarely match the usual intensity off the ball.
In 2016/17, Conte was fortunate to have fewer distractions than a 15th-century Trappist monk.
He was even out of the EFL Cup by October. With no FA Cup ties until January, he had a clean shot at Premier League glory, and he took it.
On the flipside, Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City dropped eighteen points in the same stretch – including home draws against Everton, Southampton and Middlesbrough. These three fixtures were either just before, or just after two clashes against Barcelona.
Kind draws in Europe can help, but you’ll have three away trips regardless of who you get. A short trip to France or Spain may help with air miles, but will be a tougher test than trekking off to a windswept steppes of Belarus or Ukraine.
Chelsea will now have to contend with a bloated schedule, and haven’t really enhanced their squad. This puts them immediately on the back foot.
Man City may have trimmed the fat in terms of numbers, but they blew a £150m load on four players that will provide genuine competition for places.
This will make for a notable change from the likes of Jesus Navas, a man with the eyes and footwork of a White Walker, occupying a wide berth and attempting to cross the ball before almost beheading someone in the Colin Bell stand.
Liverpool are in the same boat as Chelsea, and have signed Mohamed Salah and Andrew Robertson. At least the Champions League won’t be a problem for them after December, if they get past Hoffenheim in the first place.
Spurs went out of the Champions League in the group stages, before producing a half-hearted attempt at beating Gent in the Europa League.
Following their third-place finish in Group E, Tottenham notched six consecutive wins between mid-December and mid-January. Arsenal could benefit here.
It’s difficult to gauge how these additional games will affect Manchester United, given that their Europa League exploits, albeit a lesser test, lasted until season’s end. Keeping clean sheets is easier than scoring goals.
They had the second best defensive record in the Premiership last year, and added a potential starter in Victor Lindelof, as well as increasing their midfield protection with Nemanja Matic. They look better equipped than some of their rivals.
The balance between domestic prominence and European commitment has long been a tricky one to judge for Premier League managers. Some have prepared to tackle both while others have been left short-handed to even stake a claim in either.