It's been coming for months, but we finally have confirmation. With a scrappy 1-0 win over West Bromwich Albion — thanks to a late goal by Michy Batshuayi — Chelsea have won their sixth league title. It would take an extreme and, frankly, inadvisable act of mental contortion to argue that they've been anything other than deserving or that Antonio Conte has done anything other than an exceptional job.
In the process, he's also earned a place in some serious company. Given the efficacy of the Premier League's hype machine, you'll doubtless be aware that English football places a lot of stock in its self-proclaimed specialness. Football here, so the theory goes, is qualitatively different to football everywhere else: more competitive, more open, more chaotic. So succeeding here requires something that time spent elsewhere, however successful, cannot possibly impart. It is almost an article of faith: True Premier League managers know the league ...
... which is always a little amusing when a new, much-hyped manager arrives in the toppest top flight of them all, and that top flight swoons helplessly before them.
After all, it took Arsene Wenger just two seasons to get the hang of the thing before he stormed to the title. Jose Mourinho went one better, stretching away in his first season with almost insulting superiority. Carlo Ancelotti turned up and had his team scoring goals by the ton. And now Conte has strolled into town and, with a quick shuffle of formation and a kick up Eden Hazard's posterior, picked up his first title.
We must, of course, be careful not to fall into the Manager as Great Man and All-Powerful Overlord trap. But if we were going to, then Conte's transformative effect on Chelsea this season is the kind of thing that might persuade us to jump in. With the exception of Leicester last season — a genuine miracle — Chelsea's jump from 10th to first is the largest by any English champion since 1978, when Nottingham Forest won the title the season after winning promotion. And they had Brian Clough.
Precisely what went wrong with Chelsea last season and how the reigning champions ended up dropping down to the dark depths of 15th, sacking the most successful manager in their history and finishing a mediocre 10th, will be for the history books and the autobiographies to sort out. But though the man who came in to clean up the mess may not have known the league, he seems to have gotten the hang of it quickly enough. And Chelsea's triumph sits neatly within a couple of recent Premier League trends.
The first and perhaps most notable is the blessing-in-disguise that comes with being out of European competition. After Leicester, Chelsea makes the second champion in two seasons to have taken advantage of having the middle of the week free. Both sides were able, as a result, to keep the spine of their team relatively injury-free and keep selections consistent. And both also made midseason changes to their systems that ultimately led to the league title.
Claudio Ranieri's Leicester kept just four clean sheets in the first half of the season before they decided that this was no way for a title challenger to behave, tightened things up, and kept 11 in the latter as they sealed the title. And Conte, after back to back defeats early in the season, switched from a back four to a back three and embarked on a 13-game winning streak. They haven't left the top of the table since, and even Arsenal have been dabbling in three-at-the-back.
Quite how the extra games of a European campaign might have affected all this is of course conjecture, but as a general rule, more games of football mean more fatigue, a greater chance of injury, and more time spent recovering after games. It doesn't diminish Chelsea's achievement in the slightest* to wonder how things might have shaken out if, say, Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses each had 10 more games in their legs and a few more hundred air miles on the clock.
* Unless you're reading, Jose, in which case it absolutely does. Barely even counts as a title, really. You're still the best.
For an explanation of the other trend, we turn to Wenger. Speaking this week, he wondered about Chelsea's lack of European football, but he also noted that both they and Leicester are teams that have had "not big possession":
“Are teams who are not making the game doing well? Yes. … I still think sport has to encourage initiative and, if it rewards too much teams who don’t take initiative, then we have to rethink the whole process because people will not, forever, come to watch teams who do not want to take the initiative. …You cannot buy big players and say: ‘We do not want the ball’. Big players want the ball.”
Leaving aside the obvious barbs in those comments, as well as the fact that Chelsea have had plenty of the ball in some games, Wenger is right to note that both they and Leicester made much profit from playing on the counter-attack.
Perhaps the most important single game of Chelsea's season came away at Manchester City. City could easily have won had Kevin Du Bruyne and others not missed golden chances; instead Chelsea rode their luck and took City to pieces on the counter. No team in the country goes from back to front quicker, or more dangerously, than Chelsea.
There's another trend here, too, less Premier League-specific: Conte has a habit of making a relatively quick impact. He oversaw immediate, significant upswings at both Juventus and Siena and did pretty admirably to make something sensible out of a weirdly unbalanced Italy squad, qualifying for Euro 2016 from a tricky group and then dismantling Spain in the knockouts.
Taken together, it all rather suggests that the Premier League may not be quite as mysteriously other as it likes to pretend. A relatively uncluttered fixture list combined with a keen eye for an effective tactical approach and the ability to make an immediate impact on squad morale and belief? Sounds like the kind of approach that might work anywhere. Perhaps it's not the Premier League that's special. Perhaps it's Conte.