As supporters up and down the country geared up for the start of new Premier League season last summer, all eyes were on Manchester as far as the media were concerned after a summer of change in the northern powerhouse. As Manchester City lay down a marker by at long last appointing Pep Guardiola as manager, the red half of Manchester retaliated by swapping Louis van Gaal with the out of work José Mourinho in what was widely seen as a state nun of intent for a forward thinking, title contending Manchester United. As City flexed their financial muscle by spending a reported £50m on the highly coveted John Stones and almost £30m the equally as promising Gabriel Jesus, Mourinho soon played Guardiola at his own game and spent big on Paul Pogba to once again keep up the chase with their noisy neighbours. Things were evidently beginning to change at both Manchester clubs, setting everything in place for one of the fiercest cross-city, managerial and title contending rivalries that world football may have possibly ever witnessed.
Yet in the distance, surfacing from under the destruction that had in many ways been self-inflicted during the 2015/16 season, away from the glare and the barrage of media attention that followed their previous season’s title-winning success stood Chelsea – eager to get back to winning ways and determined to show that last season was nothing more than a freak outcome that will never again be repeated.
Like that favourite cover teacher at school that was a bigger part of the school’s furniture than many of the other teacher, every student’s best mate and always allowed for playing football over other sports during P.E lessons, in a similar vein Guus Hiddink returned in temporary charge of Chelsea following Mourinho’s mid-season meltdown and eventual departure in December 2015. With the overall objective of at least guiding his unruly class of schoolchildren to reach their end of year exams and progress into the following Premier League season without having to drop down a grade to a lower set, the ever-reliable Hiddink did what every good cover teacher should do. Remaining calm and composed throughout, despite significant early pressure following Chelsea’s poor start to last season, on a temporary basis he at least steadied what looked like a sinking ship under Mourinho in late 2016 and helped Chelsea pass their end of year report after a mediocre academic year by all accounts.
With much room for improvement however heading into the 2016/17 season, Chelsea were clearly still some way off being back at the top of the class like they had come accustomed to in recent years. Yet for a relatively bright group of intelligent footballers, the potential for bigger and better things to come never really faded – all it simply needed was the right teacher to come in and transform a failing football team into the world beaters that everybody knows they are more than capable of becoming.
Consequently, in the midst of all the hype being built up around the El Clasico pairing of Mourinho and Guardiola being brought back together in none other than the Premier League, in stepped former Italy and Juventus boss Antonio Conte off the back of a relatively successful Euro 2016 competition for the former Azzurri boss. Looking back to last summer especially, in comparison to the overall strength, squad depth and individual quality that a number of international sides that were able to at least boast on paper in the days leading up to Euro 2016, you could say that Conte’s Italy side perhaps overachieved in reaching the Quarter Final stage of European competition before being knocked out by Germany in a narrow 6-5 penalties defeat. However the task of taking an out of sorts Chelsea back to the summit of the English top flight would be greater still – making Antonio Conte’s achievements so far this season all the more impressive.
Following Chelsea’s defeat to local rivals and fellow title contenders Arsenal in the early stages of the current season, you could say that with hindsight that it was this defeat which inspired the first glimpse of the Italian’s true managerial capabilities; a sign of what was to come for Conte’s Chelsea this season. Evidently nobody quite knew that what initially seemed like an innovative but highly speculative change in formation following the Arsenal defeat would prove so successful this season and set Chelsea on their way to their second league title in three years – quite the turnaround from the club’s underperformance last season. As well as earning Chelsea an impressive 13 consecutive league victories only to be stopped short of breaking the Premier League record by rivals Tottenham Hotspur, by defiantly reverting to a back three (or five depending how you personally look at it) Chelsea have consistently blown the opposition away this season with little complacency and at present stand the greatest chance of becoming Premier League champions this season.
Under Antonio Conte, Chelsea look rejuvenated, refreshed and ready for the fight. Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso, two players who have been around the lower leagues out on loan at Wigan Athletic and Bolton Wanderers respectively during their footballing careers to date look every bit the Premier League footballer they have always shown the potential of becoming. Conte’s minimal yet significant tweaking of Moses’ attacking style of football as out and out winger into become a more natural roaming wing back that not only helps out defensively but can use his speed and agility to help Chelsea in their attack has proved a masterstroke. Likewise the decision to move full-back Cesar Azpilicueta into central defence as well as the brave call made by bringing back David Luiz to the club have proved successful. Whilst it can often take a big manager to make big decisions, little by little Conte has shown just what he is made of and fully warrants being considered as one of the finest managers in England, if not the wider modern game.
Together with his tactics on the pitch, his man management has perhaps been one Conte’s standout qualities this season; maintaining a prosperous squad harmony and keeping ‘unsettled’ players at bay as the club strongly compete for the Premier League title. Using our classroom analogy of before, as where a cover teacher may let a class largely get away with things they wouldn’t be able to if their regular teacher wasn’t off school, consequently the naughtiest individuals then have the chance to misbehave without any real punishment or subsequent action being taken. Therefore in Chelsea’s case, where the likes of Eden Hazard and Pedro may have looked disinterested and as if they were not properly playing for their manager last season, Conte has brought the best out of both individuals with Hazard back to his very best and former Barcelona man Pedro showing why Chelsea moved for the Spanish forward in the first place.
Perhaps most strikingly however is Conte’s relationship with Diego Costa and how both have altered their ways as part of a manager to player bond that has most certainly been put to the test this season. The lunging, aggressive and often ill-tempered Diego Costa looks a thing of the past and in spite of the numerous fouls committed on Costa each week, unlike last season Costa is now both much calmer and restrained and there seems very little chance of the Spanish forward ever picking up a card anywhere near as often as he has done in times gone by. Meanwhile whether or not there was ever any truth in rumours linking Costa with a move back to Atlético Madrid in the summer or even to the Chinese Super League this January, Conte’s man-management also appears to have had a positive impact on Diego Costa away from the field of play.
Although a back injury may have been cited publicly as the reason for Costa’s recent omission from the league leaders recent Premier League 3-0 away victory over current title holders Leicester City, it could be that a move away has been or still remains on the cards for the future but for now at least, after responding with a goal and a celebration alluding to the paper talk surrounding his future in the last fortnight or so, you could say that Costa looks as motivated and as committed in a Chelsea as he ever has been. And whilst you could praise the individual for his maturity, self-restraint and much wiser outlook on behaving well and succeeding at Chelsea, you would think that the cause behind his transformation has to be because of the big change at the top and a much greater emphasis on individual man-management enforced by Conte.
From writing personal messages combined with present given to the club’s staff at Christmas to turning up and spending a significant amount of time at their year end party, getting everybody on his side and effectively singing positively from the same hymn-sheet has also been a key to his Chelsea sides’ success. His enthusiasm and energy on the touchline may reach out to the millions of equally as passionate fans watching from home or in the stands but his attention to detail and interest in having as many people on his side in what should be remembered is still only his first season spent in English football is a stroke of genius that many managers often underestimate. Similarly in establishing a healthy relationship with the media, Conte has become much more than headline fodder; always perhaps capable of providing a headline worthy quote but now often coupled with a positive or favourable spin on his demeanour and his performance as Chelsea manager.
I mean, how often is it that you hear any manager, anywhere in the world peaking favourably about the press, let alone treating selected journalists to a drink after a pre-match press conference during the Christmas period? Most managers wouldn’t give such an idea a second thought and would simply dismiss the idea of anything of the sorts during what is always an incredibly notorious and hectic period of festive football. Yet Conte’s willingness to do the opposite does indeed make him stand a cut above the rest and a breath of fresh air in the English top flight.
Even in the transfer market, Conte has led by example to other Premier League managers with numerous pieces of shrewd summer business paying dividends come January. For all of Chelsea’s long-standing critics in their hoarding of youth players before sending them in what seems like their hundred’s, on season-long loan deals across Europe, by adhering to what now seems commonplace at Chelsea he has least been able to keep tabs on squad with enough depth but one that is also manageable for the season ahead. In acting quick to sign N’Golo Kanté on the 16th July 2016, Chelsea secured one of the most in-form players in the Premier League whose rise from obscurity to stardom has been meteoric in the past 18 months. Similarly in the acquisition of fellow Frenchman Michy Batshuayi from Ligue 1 side Marseille, Conte acted quickly to replace the outgoing forward, loan pairing of Radamel Falcao and Alexandre Pato with one of the most promising young strikers in Europe.
Likewise when a mega-money offer has been received from China for the likes of John Obi Mikel and Oscar, Conte has never appeared to stand in their way – demonstrating that no player is bigger than the club and that with that amount of money on the table, both are clearly replaceable in the club’s own time. Whilst it remains to be seen what Conte does with the vast sums of money even more so at his disposal after the departure of both Mikel and Oscar, recent transfer targets seem to be much more tailored to the club’s needs than those of previous managers.
Instead of a scatter-gun approach targeting anybody with an ounce of hype around their recent performances, rumours linking Adama Traoré and Fernando Llorente to Chelsea are a refreshing wake-up call for fans of the modern game. Just because both players aren’t competing in the Champions League let alone in the top half of the Premier League isn’t to say that there isn’t quality on your doorstep; right under your nose where you may least expect and instead search abroad for an agile, tricky winger or an equally as sought after target man such as Llorente. In a game of such fine margins nowadays, it is such well thought through and calculated decisions which you feel will guide Chelsea to a Premier League title ahead of their closest rivals.
Only time will tell however whether Antonio Conte is able to mark his first season in the English top flight with a Premier League title. For all of Chelsea’s good form of the first-half of the season, given the frenetic nature of the league itself it really wouldn’t be a great surprise if Chelsea in fact missed out on the title to a team you would least expect. However as an addition to a league which is often credited for its current display of talented managers on show week in week out, although it may not have seemed like it at first but Conte could be one of the most underrated arrivals that the league has seen in its lifetime. If he continues going about his day to day job in the way like he is at present, there is certainly no doubting that he will be remembered at both Chelsea and in the Premier League for all of the right reasons once he has long gone – a bit like that favourite cover teacher, right?