Conte: Bringing swagger to Chelsea’s title march

In charge of a team with bounteous talent, Antonio Conte is proving he is yet another special one. If his success with Juventus can be relied upon, he may establish a Chelsea side that would replicate the glories of his former Italian team. Conte’s teams are notoriously difficult to catch once they move ahead, something Serie A teams will find hard to dispute.

AP

Week after week, Chelsea, under Antonio Conte, has delighted viewers with displays that would meet the owner's demands of "sexy football." It's making everyone feel giddy, alright.   -  AP

Getty Images

When Diego Costa (in pic) had his much-publicised spat on the training ground, Conte kept a control over the messages that were spread in the media and the fire was put out soon enough. Costa may still leave the club in the summer but it will not be at the expense of Chelsea's flourishing league title challenge.   -  Getty Images

AP

After assuming managerial duties at Chelsea only a week after Italy exited the EUROs, Conte put his side through six-hour training sessions in pre-season. His summer recruits (from left), N'Golo Kante, Marcos Alonso and David Luiz have played crucial roles in the team's sucess.   -  AP

When Roman Abramovich first sacked Jose Mourinho, in 2007, he was looking for “sexy football.” Pragmatism was not enough, there had to be a style, an aggressive endeavour, an expansive mode of play. The domestic titles had arrived; European success was still elusive but there was a feeling within the Chelsea hierarchy that continental glory would be a willing ally of a fashionable method.

The expectations, though, had changed by the time of Mourinho’s second departure. Here was a club mired in crisis. The 2014-15 league title win was swiftly consigned to the obscure reaches of memory as Chelsea plumbed new depths. European football was no longer within the London club’s grasp, for the first time since the arrival of Abramovich.

It was not so much the failure of Mourinho but the lack of an identity that rankled Chelsea. The Portuguese manager’s association with the club had ended sourly but there was no Frank Lampard or John Terry to rally the troops anymore. Terry was still on the club’s books but he was clearly on borrowed time. The club required surgery.

Two men were identified for the manager’s job — while Guus Hiddink sought to ensure some respectability to a disastrous season — Antonio Conte and Diego Simeone. Before he went to the EUROs with Italy, Chelsea managed to lure the former. The Azzurri’s heroics in France only heightened the expectations of the Blues’ faithful; an indifferent start to the league campaign, however, tempered the mood.

READ: >Why Sunil Chhetri likes Chelsea now

Looking back to that day in September when Arsenal humbled Chelsea 3-0, it does seem quite remarkable how Conte has managed to stem the rot. But interestingly, not only has he met Abramovich’s first objective, there is also an enthusiasm around the club today. Week after week, Chelsea has delighted viewers with displays that would meet the owner’s demands of “sexy football.” It’s making everyone feel giddy, alright.

To be fair to past managers, there have been times when Chelsea has offered a product of the highest quality. The side under the stewardship of Carlo Ancelotti set the record for most goals scored in a league campaign. Even during the tenure of Andre Villas-Boas and the months following the Champions League triumph under Roberto di Matteo, Chelsea caught the eye of all and sundry. But, arguably, never before has the club been able to assert a stylistic identity like now. Perhaps, it should not come as a surprise to those who have seen Conte defy traditions with the ease of a maverick.

After assuming managerial duties at Chelsea only a week after Italy exited the EUROs, Conte put his side through six-hour training sessions in pre-season. It is indeed remarkable that players have not lost their interest in the long preparation schedule. For that, Conte’s work ethic can reasonably claim credit.

As part of his thesis for coaching badges, the Italian expanded on the educational benefits of video analysis for players. Conte’s ability to foresee situations in a match has meant that players cannot afford to let their concentration waver during sessions which can last beyond 60 minutes.

Alessandro Alciato quotes Lazio wide attacker Antonio Candreva in his book ‘Metodo Conte’ to expand on Conte’s clairvoyance. “If an opponent stops you, you have always got another solution to resolve the problem. It’s incredible how he manages to foresee all the situations that will come up in 90 minutes.”

This gives an insight into Chelsea’s ability to adapt to different situations this season. The team’s willingness to modify its approach was evident most recently in the 1-1 draw with Liverpool when Conte’s side allowed the host to dominate possession. This approach had also brought three points at Manchester City earlier in the season when victory was gained through blitzing counter-attacks.

Indeed, the discussion around Chelsea’s formation might be a red herring. While Conte had unprecedented success at Juventus with the same system, he has never been rigidly attached to it. In fact, in his early days, he demonstrated a preference for a 4-2-4 setup at Bari and Siena.

But one constant in the Italian manager’s football philosophy has been the use of width to stretch play. This is the reason why he demands utmost physical effort from his players on the flank — industry and determination were the hallmarks of Conte the player, after all. During his days as Italy manager, the wing-backs were demanded to “come off the pitch spitting blood.”

Working with Conte can seem like going to “the university of football”, as Paul Pogba and Carlos Tevez once said. But there’s another moniker that opens one’s eyes to the manager’s obsession with victory. Conte is called a ‘martello’ in Italy, a hammer. He will not rest until he drives his point home.

It’s a cross he bears everyday as he dedicates no less than 16 hours for work. Lesser mortals would have fallen by the wayside. It is his obsessive relationship with work which brought him back to club football as international duties left him with too much time on his hands. However, the free time was utilised well. Conte learnt English, despite not knowing where his next destination lay. But for a predestinato — someone meant for greatness, as he called himself once when asked for thoughts on his own managerial career — it may seem very natural. It is something arguably Conte believes to the day, as he told Italian newspaper La Repubblica, “Yes, (I did say that) and I know what you’re thinking: ‘This guy’s a bit arrogant.’ But I soon understood that the talent I lacked on the pitch I possessed on the bench.”

In charge of a team with bounteous talent, Conte is proving he is yet another special one. If his success with Juventus can be relied upon, he may establish a Chelsea side that would replicate the glories of his former Italian team. Conte’s teams are notoriously difficult to catch once they move ahead, something Serie A teams will find hard to dispute.

IN fact, the manager was able to improve Juventus domestically season after season. After bringing an end to a nine-year scudetto drought, Conte took the legendary side from Turin to a record points haul in his final season there. From the first campaign to the second, there was also a 49-match unbeaten run.

But it is his obsession with victory that marks Conte’s teams. The number of draws came down for Juventus every season, from fifteen to six to three. This term, after 24 games, Chelsea has played only two matches that did not produce a winner. If ever there was a manager breaking Italian stereotypes, it is Conte.

But the thing with stereotypes is that they are liable to obfuscating the truth. For Conte’s ideological guru is another attack-minded and hugely successful Italian coach, Arrigo Sacchi. In a sense, his team is a throwback to Sacchi’s sides where forwards are expected to track back and cover space.

Willian was chosen ahead of Pedro for Chelsea’s draw with Liverpool for precisely this reason. Indeed, it is quite remarkable how quickly the squad members have warmed up to Conte’s methods. It is not the easiest thing to do in the world. Andrea Pirlo once said, “When he talks, his words assault you. They crash through your mind, often quite violently, and settle deep within.”

It is clear that Conte’s words have found a residence in the mind of every Chelsea player. Even when Diego Costa had his much-publicised spat on the training ground, Conte kept a control over the messages that were spread in the media and the fire was put out soon enough. Costa may still leave the club in the summer but it will not be at the expense of this flourishing league title challenge.

Watching Chelsea’s players, in general, has been a revelation this season. It is a team transformed and transfer market activity is not the sole reason behind it, although the acquisitions of N’Golo Kante and David Luiz have turned out exceedingly well. Could Chelsea slip from the perch, still? Unlikely, for there’s a story about Conte that we should all remember.

When Juventus missed out on the Serie A trophy on the last day of the 1999-00 campaign, Conte was shocked. He did not sleep for five days. It was a pain that stayed with him for a very long time. Perhaps, he returns to the heartache occasionally even now. There is, after all, no place for defeat in his mind. Victory, victory and victory alone can stay. He even named his daughter Vittoria.

But long after the competition is done, we will rummage the drawers of memory to recall how this title was won. Conte and Chelsea have brought sexy back and it looks here to stay.

For more updates, follow Sportstar on :