A tactical genius, a miracle worker or simply a crazed man, who somehow goes home with what he wants from a game! Call Antonio Conte what you may but Chelsea’s Italian manager has taken a little less than half a season in the Premiership to underline his class. And for all you know, he might have a winner’s medal at the end of it to erase any doubt you had about his credentials.
The build-up to this Premier League season was all about the star cast of managers that were descending on English soil. Pep Guardiola came to a Manchester City side that finished fourth and Jose Mourinho was handed the reins of a Manchester United side that finished fifth. But Conte came to Stamford Bridge to sort the ruins of a club that finished a shambolic 10th on the League table. To put things into perspective, Stoke City and West Ham finished above the Blues in 2015-16.
It would be wrong to say that Conte’s class or credibility was in doubt before he took the Chelsea job. But the Premier League can be a very unforgiving place and has, on more than one occasion, proven to be the burial ground of good managers. The 47-year-old got the job while he was in charge of an Italian national side that was dubbed the ‘worst in 50 years’ as they were set to begin their EURO 2016 journey in France.
While bookies had written off Italy to do anything even mildly spectacular, Conte went about chipping away with his averagely talented squad to finish on top of the group table that also comprised Belgium, Republic of Ireland and Sweden. He then crafted Spain’s exit in the round-of-16 only for his men to falter in a quarterfinal shoot-out against Germany.
What I like about Conte is the way he manages to get his players to work relentlessly for him. You could be the best tactician in the world but if you don’t have the respect of your dressing room, it’s all going to come apart. Ironically, the best example would be that of Mourinho, who Conte has replaced. There were talks of a rebellion, supposedly spearheaded by Cesc Fabregas, that eventually led to the ‘Special One’s’ exit. I’m not sure about the truth behind the story. But what I and everyone around know is that Fabregas is a completely different player under Conte. He’s enjoying a resurrection and has played a big role in Chelsea’s impressive run of 13 wins on the spin before Tottenham put a halt to that record.
Juventus had finished seventh on the table for two consecutive seasons before Conte took over the reins of the club, where he had earlier played, in 2011. Andrea Pirlo, in his book, recalls Conte’s first team talk where the vocal manager summarised Juve’s performances over the past two seasons like this — “crazy stuff; absolutely appalling. I’ve not come here for that. It’s time we stopped being crap.” He let them know what he came for when he steered Juventus to the 2011-12 title without losing a game all season. He then went on to win the next season with 87 points, three more than the season before. And just to understand how he loves bettering his own record, Juventus won their 30th title in Conte’s third season in charge with a Serie A record of 102 points. Conte loves his numbers, streaks and records.
He calls things as they are and even goes overboard at times but that’s what works for him. But behind all the crazed rants, the hanging from the roof of the dugout in celebration and the flinging of bottles during half-time ‘assaults’ on the team, there’s a master tactician who surveys things and comes up with a plan that works more often than not.
Chelsea’s start to the Premier League season was a mixed bag. Conte’s first four games in charge had two wins, a draw and a loss. But it was the 3-0 annihilation at the hands of Arsenal that turned things around. In fact it was after conceding the third goal at the Emirates that Conte switched to a 3-4-3 formation. Chelsea didn’t concede any more that night and Conte liked what he saw. He stuck with it and went on that unbelievable run of 13 wins on the trot. What’s even more impressive is that the Blues conceded just four times in those 13 games. It took Mauricio Pochettino’s own version of a 3-4-3 to finally outwit Conte.
On an honest note, I have never been a fan of Chelsea’s style and systems till Conte took charge. You’d expect an Italian to play completely safe and boring football. But what Conte has brought to the pitch is refreshing. He loves his midfielders to join in attack and it has shown us so much more of players like Willian and Eden Hazard. It’s amazing how hard Diego Costa wants to work for his manager. He’s always been hungry for goals but the kind of effort he has been putting in has been tremendous.
The Premier League is still a long way from finish but you cannot put your finger on one team as a safe bet to be crowned champion. This is turning out to be the season of the managers as it was touted to be and as it stands Conte holds the cards. He’s stubborn enough to not let things slip and the defeat to Spurs could only spark the kind of rage that could propel the Blues’ charge to the title that belonged to them before their fall from grace last season. Trust Conte to mastermind it.
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