Case for the defence: Chelsea look as solid as they did during Mourinho’s best years

Nine in a row. And counting.

Antonio Conte insists he is not thinking about surpassing Arsenal’s record for consecutive Premier League wins of 14. He just wants to get the next game won to ensure his table-topping side remain at the summit.

As long as Chelsea can remain injury-free, and Diego Costa keeps his new-found discipline and scoring prowess intact, there is every chance that momentum will be maintained.

The remaining fixtures in 2016 also suggest few potential clouds on the horizon.

After Sunderland on Wednesday, Chelsea visit Crystal Palace next weekend and have home games against Bournemouth and Stoke City to see out the year.

But there is another cause for unbridled optimism right now and it has nothing to do with Chelsea’s ability to score the goals that are earning them these victories – it is surely the defensive excellence.

For all the goalscoring exploits of the best teams in any given season, it is usually the ones with the best defensive backbones which prevail – because it means they are able to grind out results when not at their best. Chelsea have all these hallmarks.

The stats say it all

The 11 goals conceded in the first 15 games of this Premier League season – a stat which would have been even more impressive but for the capitulation at Arsenal in September – is not far off a return to the miserly years of peak-Jose Mourinho, when only six goals were shipped in the first 15 games of 2005-06 and seven the following season.

It is certainly a massive improvement on last year’s concession of 22 goals in the first 15 games, 17 in 2013-14 and 16 and 18 in the two years before that.

Even the title winners of two years ago let in more (13) than this year’s model.

Arguably the rediscovered form of Nemanja Matic and the arrival of N’Golo Kante has as much to do with that as the unity of purpose shown by Gary Cahill, David Luiz and Cesar Azpilicueta.

Kante is, after all, a man very much in the mould of Claude Makelele, who was around when Chelsea were just not in the habit of conceding.

But whatever the main ingredient, Conte appears to have discovered the defensive stability that underpins the very best championship contenders and Chelsea may take some stopping.

Ropey rivals

Conte must also be buoyed by the relative vulnerability of the other sides in title contention this season.

For while the Blues were keeping a seventh clean sheet in nine Premier League games at the weekend, Man City were losing their bearings at Leicester, as they have several times already this season, and Liverpool were being careless yet again, allowing West Ham to add two more to the four conceded last week at Bournemouth.

Tottenham ought to be more solid again now Toby Alderweireld is back, but they lost at Old Trafford and Chelsea dented their confidence a couple of weeks ago. Only Arsenal’s victory over Stoke denied the Blues a perfect weekend.

It is true that a West Brom side hell-bent on making Chelsea’s way to goal as awkward and frustrating as possible were hardly likely to offer the greatest test of Conte’s defensive solidity.

‘Great motivation’

Yet once again, the Blues’ back three stayed compact, while the holding midfielders and wing-backs did their bit – ensuring alarms were kept to a minimum.

“We showed great maturity and made changes to find the right solution and another clean sheet,” said Conte, who took greater satisfaction from a 1-0 win over a stubborn Albion than the recent 5-0 drubbing of Everton.

“When you have an easy win, sometimes you can lose concentration and focus.

“I like to see my team fight in the same way like West Brom. It wasn’t easy, but they showed me great character, great motivation to try to win.

“I am interested to continue this way. I’m not interested in the record. I’m interested in three points in every game because it means we can stay at the top of the table and fight for something important.”

Conte spoke of commitment, concentration and intensity – the example he himself sets on the sidelines with his impassioned goal celebrations.

It is a formula maybe only Liverpool are consistently matching, but they don’t have Chelsea’s defensive organisation, and, like City, have goalkeeping issues undermining their ambitions.

It may be surprising that a return to defensive solidity has coincided with John Terry retreating to the shadows, but it’s not a surprise that an Italian has overseen it.

Conte, like his team, is having a ball.