Let's start with a quiz, shall we? Put your hand up if you thought, back at the beginning of the season, that as October ended, as the English nights lengthened and winter approached, Chelsea's two most important players would be Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses.
Now put your hand down, you terrible liar.
Not best players, we wouldn't go that far. Mostly because we're afraid of Diego Costa. But against Leicester City, Chelsea played a 3-4-2-1 formation that was both fun and effective, and that simply would not have worked were it not for the huge-lunged endeavor of Alonso and Moses, who took possession of one flank each and then barreled up and down all day.
To what extent this was Antonio Conte's plan all along is a matter for conjecture, but we can probably conjecture: not really. Marcos Alonso's arrival on the last day of the transfer market strongly suggests that he wasn't Plan A, B or maybe even C, and Victor Moses' loan spells at Liverpool, Stoke and West Ham had been sort of okay, on balance, but overall hadn't really amounted to a case for a place in Chelsea's first team.
Or perhaps it was just that the first team didn't have a place for him. After all, if Moses is to compete for the wide attacking positions in a 4-3-2-1 or a 4-3-3, then he's got competition from Eden Hazard, Pedro, Willian and maybe even Oscar. If the question becomes one of wing-backs, however, then Moses represents the best available blend of attacking instinct, positional flexibility, defensive diligence, speed, stamina and work rate.
It helps that the 3-4-2-1 suits plenty of other of Chelsea's squad members as well. Cesar Azpilicueta, a defender of admirable flexibility, sits very nicely as the rightmost of three central defenders, and David Luiz and Gary Cahill, who both get very skittish when left alone for too long, benefit from the extra company. Then there's Alonso, who like Moses appears to be happiest when given an entire flank to stroll up and down. And Eden Hazard gets to spend more time attacking, which is handy, since he's not much use for anything else.
But on a more general note, Conte's flexibility in terms of both formation and personnel feels like an encouraging sign for Chelsea, and particularly for Chelsea's legion of loan players, laboring out in the wildernesses of Vitesse, Bristol City and Mouscron-Péruwelz, trying to catch their manager's eye. Where under Jose Mourinho the path to the first team was virtually unnavigable, the fact that Moses has come back from three loan spells and been found a place in the team might perhaps be a sign that things are going to be a little different. The sight of Nathaniel Chalobah coming on and backheeling the ball through for Moses' goal, Chelsea's third, can't have hurt either.
Admittedly, the team as a whole were assisted by Leicester's decision that competent defending is, like, so last season. This is not a judgement shared by Chelsea's previous manager, Jose Mourinho, who by happy coincidence is bringing his new side to Stamford Bridge on Sunday; as we saw against Liverpool, Manchester United can be every bit as well-organised, bloody-minded and resilient as a Mourinho team should be.
It's tempting to assume something spectacular might happen — Mourinho returns to Stamford Bridge with another team, only to be blown away by a new formation built in a fashion he never considered, using players he never rated — but the reality is that Sunday's game will be one between two managers still looking for their best team, and their best arrangement of that team. Both sides have looked excellent in some games and a mess in others, and definitive judgements will likely have to wait.
But even if we never see the 3-4-2-1 again, even if Victor Moses is sent on his way in January, the signs are good that Chelsea's coach isn't afraid to experiment in his search for the mess that the last man left. Here is a coach happy to shake things up, try things out, give everybody at the club a second chance, and generally work with what he's been given. At times last season, it felt as though Mourinho's solution to Chelsea's poor form was, essentially, Let's keep doing the same thing, but more so, and eventually the universe will come around.
Sometimes that's the right approach, but as we found out, sometimes it really, really isn't. Sometimes the situation calls for a man with pretend hair to charge into the club, find Victor Moses locked in a spare room, and ask Shall we give this lad a try on the right? It might just work, too.