How Antonio Conte made Chelsea Premier League champions
Antonio Conte’s transformation of Chelsea from fallen champions to Premier League title winners inside 12 months was completed with victory at West Bromwich Albion – a remarkable success story in his first season at Stamford Bridge.
The 47-year-old inherited a squad that had declined from domestic superpower to mid-table mediocrity amid acrimony and the sacking of title-winning manager, Jose Mourinho. But he has shown the personality, tactical brilliance and sure touch to put them back at the top of the English game.
So, how has the charismatic Italian achieved what many inside Stamford Bridge regard as a miraculous rejuvenation of fortunes to return the Premier League crown to Chelsea?
The scene is a side room in an Austrian hotel on 16 July 2016. Chelsea’s players are coming down from their rooms for a pre-match meal before a friendly against Rapid Vienna, as the Conte reign officially gets under way.
In the past, tables would have been laden with chicken, pasta, pizza, sandwiches, scrambled egg and salad – this time Chelsea’s squad set eyes on a selection of seeds, nuts and dried fruit.
Some players, bemused, turn on their heels and leave, assuming they have wandered into the wrong room rather than a new era. They soon return.
Conte, as he has done since day one at Stamford Bridge, outlines in detail and from personal experience why this is happening. He explains how long some food might take to digest, running the risk of players perhaps carrying an extra half a kilo into games.
The message was swiftly embraced as players felt fitter, healthier and better equipped for the season ahead.
As Chelsea decamped to Los Angeles to continue preparations for the new season, Conte’s trademark attention to detail was becoming even more obvious, as the Italian put on tough double sessions, sometimes in 30-degree heat.
He proved a hard tactical taskmaster, as opposed to running players into the ground. Conte loves the role of head coach rather than manager.
Unlike Mourinho, it was Conte who put out the cones – measuring exact distances – and the emphasis was on drill after drill. It was repetition until Chelsea’s players knew exactly what was expected, even using shadow sessions of 11 players against none.
Video analysis was, and continues to be, exhaustive as Conte goes through every aspect of Chelsea’s training, preparation and games in minute, meticulous detail.
Some days Conte was left frustrated that the message was not quite getting across, but on others the signs were there that any initial reservations his players had, inevitable when a new manager arrives, were disappearing.
The foundations and building blocks were being put in place for a season of Premier League title-winning success.
When Chelsea technical director, Michael Emenalo spoke of “palpable discord between manager and players” following the sacking of Mourinho just seven months after winning the title, it underlined the scale of the task that would await his full-time successor.
The trusted Guus Hiddink returned for a second spell in interim charge as a sticking plaster over the wounds, but at season’s end a squad used to success looked broken and lacking in unity as it finished in 10th place.
Conte was seen by Chelsea’s decision-makers – Emenalo, highly influential director Marina Granovskaia and, of course, owner Roman Abramovich – as a man with a pedigree of success – having won three Scudetto in Italy with Juventus – and the personality to organise and galvanise.
It was an impression he confirmed when, after his appointment at Chelsea had been announced, he took what most regarded as an ordinary Italy team to the last eight of Euro 2016, losing on penalties to Germany after outstanding wins over Belgium and Spain.
Conte, even before Euro 2016, had taken time out from his Italy duties to visit Chelsea’s Cobham training base to introduce himself to his future charges.
He arrived on one occasion while Hiddink was conducting a training session, but insisted on showing full respect to the veteran Dutch coach, waiting around a corner out of sight until he finished the final 30 minutes’ work before introducing himself to the players.
Conte was assuming a role that the long list of his predecessors proves is highly demanding, but he has forged a close and productive working relationship with Chelsea’s hierarchy.
He is in daily contact with Emenalo and speaks regularly to Granovskaia, who is in charge of transfers and heavily involved throughout the club, as well as with Abramovich when the opportunity and occasion arises, as when the Russian billionaire flew in to attend Chelsea’s FA Youth Cup final win against
Manchester City at Stamford Bridge.
Abramovich may have many other demands on his time but still has a major input and involvement in every significant decision taken at the club.
Conte is sure to want to refresh and improve his title-winning squad for the added demands of Champions League football next season, so Chelsea’s tried and trusted acquisition strategy will be at his full disposal.
Gone are the days when the likes of Andriy Shevchenko would arrive gift-wrapped (and in Mourinho’s case unappreciated) for a manager.
The current system, with Emenalo’s scouting network at its hub, involves the manager being presented with a list of long-term club targets, to which he can add his own and even set aside those names he does not require.
When Conte makes his moves at the end of the season, with Everton striker Romelu Lukaku heavily linked with a return, they will not be spur-of-the-moment transactions. He will have been a key figure in the drawing up of potential signings.
Conte has silenced the sound of palpable discord and it has been a harmonious Chelsea, on and off the pitch, that has secured a richly deserved Premier League title.
Italy’s over-achievement at Euro 2016 was compelling evidence of how close bonds within a camp can produce results beyond expectation. It is something Conte has brought to Chelsea and placed at the heart of his approach and success.
Conte organised a pre-season barbecue for players, staff and families at Cobham. Marquees were erected and a five-a-side pitch set out for the children. It set the tone for the season, with striker Diego Costa spoiling his villainous public image by happily joining in with the youngsters for 40 minutes, during which he was even taken out by a tackle.
When pre-season got under way in Austria and LA, Chelsea’s support staff were surprised to be singled out for warm handshakes and words every day from a manager intent on providing unity at a club that has had its share of instability, often actually generating renewed success, over the years.
At the staff Christmas party, the tradition is for the manager to record a message to be played at the event.
Conte duly obliged, but then asked if he could also attend the event for about 500 people at the Under The Bridge music venue at Stamford Bridge, staying for more than two hours, spending time mingling with guests and happily posing for pictures and selfies.
He spent a similar amount of time at a trampoline party organised for players’ children around the festive period – while staff at Cobham also saw evidence of his personal touch last Christmas.
Conte ensured staff received wine and Prosecco, with every bottle personally addressed to the individual as thanks, and accompanied by a card with the words of Hannibal as he prepared to cross the Alps by elephant: “We shall either find a way or make one.”
Conte’s seasonal goodwill even extended to the media, with a group invited to a local pub and bought drinks after a pre-match news conference in the build-up to the Boxing Day game with Bournemouth.
The irony is the manager intent on developing the Chelsea “family” has had to cope for long spells without wife Elisabetta and nine-year-old daughter Vittoria, who have remained in Italy but will soon join him in London.
Every month, players and staff will go out together for a meal – but Chelsea’s players also know when to keep their distance.
Former Chelsea and Scotland winger, Pat Nevin witnessed a moment that underlined how Conte, while always available to any player, is not to be trifled with.
He told BBC Sport: “The fun guys at the training ground, the daft ones, David Luiz and Diego Costa, are always having a laugh.
“Costa was sneaking up behind people and throwing big buckets of iced water over them. He was running up behind Antonio and he was going to do the ice bucket over the top and, even though you know Antonio is a good laugh and he was having a joke, he got all the way up then chickened out.
“The players kind of think you’re one of them but they’re not quite sure. As a manager you’ve nailed it then – and Conte has nailed it.”
Nevin added: “I have also spent a couple of hours with him and interviewed him. We spoke before, just chatting, but he is the classic mix in that he can be great fun but then you see the steely eyes and think you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of him.
“You judge a manager by whether he gets the most out of his players. If you are managing a company, a newspaper, a shop or a football team, your job is to get the best out of your staff. He has done that.”
Conte’s success has meant the potentially thorny issue of captain John Terry’s absence from the team and subsequent departure has become an amicable and dignified parting – while a reported training-ground row with Costa in January was handled with the striker left out of the 3-0 win at
Leicester City before returning with a goal as Hull City were beaten 2-0.
He is close to his players but also prepared to draw the line. As the card in the Christmas present promised, he has found his way at Chelsea.
Conte’s attention to detail and determination to create the perfect environment at Cobham has produced what he wants most in football – success.
Italian journalist Stefano Boldrini, London correspondent for Italian daily Gazzetta dello Sport, told BBC Sport: “Conte is a person who lives football every hour, every minute of the day.
“Conte thinks about football 48 hours a day.
“He is always focused on his work, not only on the training ground or in his office. When he is at his house in Chelsea he watches football, speaks with his staff. His mind is always on his work.
“It was the same in Italy but this is a new experience. He has had to fight against Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United, Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool, Arsenal of Arsene Wenger, Mauricio Pochettino at Tottenham.
“He likes the sea and he likes good restaurants but his life is about good football. He is enjoying life in England but Conte does not go into London a lot. His life is Cobham and his house. He is very focused on his work.
“He is a very reserved person. For him it was not easy because in one year he has had to learn English, to learn about English football. I don’t know about the future but he is really focused on his work now.”
Conte’s affection for aspects of English football was demonstrated when he applauded the Middlesbrough fans who continued to support their team even though they were relegated with defeat at Chelsea.
Boldrini says: “I know he is a passionate man but it was fantastic when he went to the Middlesbrough fans to applaud them. It was class behaviour and this is Antonio Conte.
“He loves England. He was celebrating the civilisation of English football with what happened with the Boro fans. It was honest.”
The idea of Conte as a reserved figure is at odds with the manic touchline celebrations that saw him swinging from a dugout after Gary Cahill’s later winner at Stoke City, and ripping an expensive pair of trousers and injuring his leg in one outpouring of joy earlier this season.
Conte, it is believed, finds it awkward to watch those moments back, but it is an insight into the pleasure Chelsea’s progress under his tutelage has brought him.
The transformation in Chelsea’s season started to unfold in the corridors at Emirates Stadium after a humbling 3-0 loss to Arsenal on 24 September left Conte’s side in eighth place, eight points behind leaders Manchester City.
Conte was emotional and downcast as he conducted post-match media duties, but he was cold enough to deliver the clearest of messages: “We must reflect a lot. From the first minute, we have had a bad attitude.
“We are now a great team only on paper not on the pitch. We must show we are a great team on the pitch not on paper.”
The loss followed a home defeat by Liverpool in their previous league game that even had some bookmakers suggesting Conte might be an early winner of the managerial sack race.
There was no panic behind the scenes. The club’s power-brokers had full faith in their manager and he justified their confidence with a tactical switch that turned Chelsea from a team with doubts about its top-six credentials into an all-conquering force en route to the title.
Chelsea already had future double player of the year N’Golo Kante as a brilliant midfield bedrock after his £30m move from Premier League champions Leicester City – but Conte pulled off a strategic coup that was even more audacious.
Conte reverted to a three-man central-defensive system for the subsequent 2-0 win at Hull City. It was the first of 13 successive league wins. Chelsea’s quality had moved from paper to pitch.
New signing Marcos Alonso and the returning Luiz were key figures. Cesar Azpilicueta was part of the central triumvirate but Conte’s finest moment may even have come in his reinvention of Victor Moses as a right wing-back of high calibre.
Moses had almost become an itinerant footballer, lost and unloved at Chelsea after being signed by Roberto di Matteo from Wigan Athletic for £9m in August 2012.
He arrived on the same day as Azpilicueta signed from Marseille – but their courses could not have been more different as the 26-year-old spent unspectacular loan spells at Liverpool, Stoke City and West Ham United before Conte spotted something no-one else had uncovered.
Moses made 59 league appearances in those three loan seasons, scoring five goals, and had only made 23 appearances with 12 starts for Chelsea before this season, during which he has played 38 times.
Nevin said: “You see he is going 3-4-3 and you know who the wide man in the four is. It is Cesar Azpilicueta – only it isn’t. It’s Victor Moses.
“I love it and it impresses me so much when managers do things you don’t expect. It is also about the player who plays alongside him.
“Moses was often alongside the manager, who was shouting and telling him almost inch by inch where to be, and he also has Azpilicueta beside him who is as good as there is in the business at closing down, getting close to people and not letting crosses in.”
And for Boldrini, it is a prime example of Conte’s acumen. He says: “He has been very important for Moses because he hadn’t made an impact at Chelsea until Conte came.
“Conte discovered what Moses could do in pre-season and it was a success for Conte because he saw something other managers didn’t see.”
He added: “He speaks with every player. Conte has a very good relationship with Cesc Fabregas, who has not played all the time, and he also has a very good relationship with Diego Costa. He has spoken to him a lot of times about his behaviour, to be more focused on the game and not his opponent.”
The tactical change was seen as Conte returning to old instincts, but Nevin disagrees: “Looking historically at what he’d done before to what he does now, he’s not a 3-4-3 man. 100 per cent not.
“That worked because he needed to try something else. I’d seen Juventus a lot. I think most people thought they were a 3-5-2, or a version of that, and sometimes a 3-4-3 as well.
“I looked because I wanted to prove to myself how often he played Andrea Barzagli, Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci together and quite often it was four at the back but very adaptable. If he needed it, he could utilise it.
“At heart he wants to play two centre-forwards but when Andrea Pirlo came in at Juve he couldn’t play a 4-4-2. You can’t do that with Fabregas either because you need two in there like Kante and Nemanja Matic, who can do all the dogged work as well.
“What has interested me is that when he changed to a 3-4-3, which I thought was really quite out there as I didn’t see it coming, it worked. I then thought he would change that quite quickly – he didn’t.”
Nevin has an ominous warning for Chelsea’s rivals, saying: “I actually think you have only seen 20% of his tactical nous. I think you have seen something that has scratched the surface so far.”
Has his success surprised his countrymen in Italy?
“Maybe we didn’t think he would win in his first year but we were sure he would be a success,” says Boldrini. “We knew of his focus and passion and had faith.
“In Italy, the pressure is outside the pitch. In England, the pressure is on the pitch because you play against Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Tottenham, Everton, Liverpool – the pressure is the football and this is the pressure he enjoys and is the big difference between Italy and England.”
What next for Conte and Chelsea?
Chelsea must cope with the added demands of the Champions League next season – and history shows this is not a club or an owner that enters Europe’s elite competition to make up the numbers.
Conte has won the title with a relatively small squad. He has used 23 players this season so far, equal lowest with Liverpool, Spurs and West Bromwich Albion. Chelsea used 30 players when they won titles in 2004-05 and 2009-10, and 25 in 2005-06 and 2014-15.
Conte lost the likes of Branislav Ivanovic, Oscar and Jon Mikel Obi but their absences were compensated for. There has already been speculation about departures this summer. Costa has been linked with a lucrative move to China, and there has been speculation surrounding the future of Fabregas after a season in which he has excelled when called upon but, at 30, could seek more regular football.
Lukaku’s links with Chelsea, where he may feel he has unfinished business after being sold to Everton for £28m in 2014, continue, while Real Madrid’s Alvaro Morata could be another attacking target. Chelsea will also be in the market for a central defender following Terry’s departure, with names such as Southampton’s Virgil van Dijk and Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly on the radar.
If Fabregas leaves, Chelsea will surely be in the market for a midfielder, and Tiemoue Bakayoko’s excellence as Monaco reached the Champions League semi-final has drawn attention from a host of Europe’s top clubs.
The FA Youth Cup was won by Chelsea for a fourth successive season – and fifth time in six – by beating Manchester City, but it remains to be seen if any make the leap to serious senior duty.
Nevin is convinced it will be a busy summer for Chelsea, saying: “I think there is a lot to do. There is no way you will get into the latter reaches of the Champions League and the Premier League with the current squad unless some of the kids step up unbelievably and that’s a massive jump, too big.
“Will you keep everybody that’s here? Antonio’s probably got his eye on four or five and if he gets them there is no reason why he will not continue to be successful.”
• Culled from BBC.Com.