Editor's Note: This article was updated on 13 May after Chelsea's Premier League title win. It was originally published on 23 January.
"I always talk about education and respect. I give this and I demand this. If someone doesn’t show a good attitude or a good behavior during the training session or any other circumstances, I prefer to kill him. I prefer to kill him to earn the other 22 players. If a manager closes the eyes and if he doesn’t want to see the bad situation, you lose the changing room," Chelsea manager Antonio Conte told Sky Sports pundit Thierry Henry during an interview earlier in the season, making his manner of operation crystal clear.
Amongst all Chelsea players, Diego Costa would have come closest to have witnessed that 'killer' in Conte when he was left out of the Blues' squad against Leicester, reportedly after a spat with Conte and his fitness coach Paolo Bertelli.
Despite facing a trip to the defending champions' ground and having suffered a defeat to Tottenham Hotspur in the previous league game, Conte didn't think twice before wielding the axe on Costa, the league's leading scorer. For him, Costa had violated his terms and there was no getting away with it. Chelsea went to the King Power stadium and dished out a dominant display to seal a 3-0 win. After the loss to Spurs in the first match of the new year, there was a marker laid down for the rest of the Premier League, but more importantly for Conte's players.
There was just one boss in that Chelsea dressing room and his name was Antonio Conte. If that hadn't been clear until then, it surely would have been after Costa was made to learn it the hard way.
Couple of days later, the Spanish striker was seen hugging the Italian manager, most certainly after an apology behind closed doors, before being allowed to resume training with the first team. He was later restored to the starting line-up against Hull City on Sunday where he scored in a 2-0 win. The fans chanted Costa's name again and the saga that threatened to derail Chelsea's season was a thing of the past. The Italian had once again stamped his authority at Stamford Bridge, like he did all season long.
While Conte's tactical tweak that saw Chelsea adopt a fresh-looking 3-4-3 system may get all the plaudits for turning their fortunes around, his task had more to it than a mere formation change. The former Juventus manager was entrusted with a squad full of big egos, battered by the dismal turn of events during the 2015/16 season, which ended with Chelsea being the worst title defenders in Premier League history.
A few were sulking, hoping for a move elsewhere to put a lid over what had gone by, while others suffered from a serious lack of confidence, if not identity, as their credentials as players were put under some serious question.
It was clear that Conte needed reinforcements and he had earmarked his targets to the board fairly early. But soaring prices in the transfer markets and perhaps some bad negotiations on Chelsea's part meant the Italian had to do with deadline-day signings of David Luiz and Marcos Alonso, who were either low down or non-existent in his wishlist.
He could have cribbed, picked up a fight with the club doctor, or lowered his ambitions, but the word failure doesn't exist in his dictionary. Having admitted that "he suffers a lot" after every loss his team faces, Conte wasn't ready to endure that path.
"When Conte speaks, his words assault you, They crash through the doors of your mind, often quite violently and settle deep within you. I've lost track of the number of times I've found myself saying, 'Hell, Conte said something really spot-on again today'," reads an excerpt from Andrea Pirlo's book I Think Therefore I Play that attempts to explain the impact that Conte had on him.
One can't help but think that Chelsea players have been dealt with many such assaults throughout this season. At least the stark contrast in their performances this season, as compared to the last one, suggests so. One may not look beyond the resurgence of the likes of Victor Moses and Pedro Rodriguez under the Italian's reign to gauge the impact he has had at Cobham. Moses, who had been loaned to three different clubs since his signing in 2012, made 16 straight starts under the Italian in the league. The Nigerian formulated a vital cog in a Chelsea machine that has won 15 of those games.
Often ignored in pre-season, Moses was moved by Conte's interest in him, and the feeling of being wanted by a Chelsea manager was enough for the young Nigerian to give it his all. "Every time I came to Chelsea for pre-season, I worked very hard, but I had to go out on loan. But this time there was a manager who actually came and spoke to me personally. He told me that he liked my football and that he wanted me to stay. That gave me a lot of confidence and I felt that I must repay his faith in me," Moses told Sky Sports in a video interview.
He has repaid Conte's faith and how! Moses scored his first goal of the season against Burnley back in September and assisting him then was Pedro. That was a goal ushering in the Conte era, as two players who were often on the wrong side of the fringe at Stamford Bridge had come to the party. The former Barcelona man appeared lost ever since arriving at Stamford Bridge in the 2015 summer, and his career in London looked to be heading to an end when he made public his wish to rejoin the Catalan giants.
However, Pedro stayed and ten months on finds himself at the thick of the things at Chelsea. The 29-year-old was taken away by the Italian's charisma and now is one of his most trusted troops at Stamford Bridge. Pedro has scored eight goals and assisted nine times in the Premier League this season, and finally looks like a player that won three Champions League titles with Barcelona.
"He put trust and belief in all of the players and then we started winning matches. Quite easily, he just turned things around. He put the trust, the belief in all of us that we could win matches, that we could win the League," Pedro told The Telegraph in an interview.
“I have worked with many managers, but this is the one who has made us train the hardest, definitely," he added.
Apart from Moses and Pedro who have literally risen from the dumps at Stamford Bridge, Conte has also got Chelsea's fallen stars from last season firing again. Be it Costa, or Eden Hazard or even Cesc Fabregas, all these players look to be back to their best under the Italian.
The fact that Fabregas hardly started under Conte and yet stepped up to the plate whenever called upon is a significant testimony to Conte's man management skills. The former Italy manager has kept his zest alive by handing him league starts every time his performances – be it as cameos in the league or starts in Cup competitions – warranted a reward. Conte has hailed Fabregas as a player he can always "count on" and the Spaniard has been true to his manager's words every time he has stepped onto the field. 13 assists and four goals in a season where he has largely been on the fringe is a remarkable return.
Costa, Conte's most lethal predator in front of goal has termed Conte as "more than just a boss" and one on whom they can count for support in difficult times or even share a few jokes with. The duo were seen doing just that in Chelsea's third round FA Cup win over Peterborough United, just days before their reported bust up. For all the up and downs, Costa netted twenty goals for Chelsea and making all the difference for Conte's side.
The upturn in the form of Hazard and Luiz is more down to the tactical switch, but one can't underestimate the impact Conte's man management skills have had on the duo.
The Brazilian, who was renowned for his erratic nature in the past, has been almost flawless playing at the base of Chelsea back three this season. By putting added responsibility of being the last man in Chelsea's rearguard, Conte has got him playing in a way that no previous manager has been able to.
From backing the erring Gary Cahill after the loss to Arsenal to showing the stick to a notorious Costa, Conte has won over the Chelsea squad in more ways than one. For a team which never played in a formation like 3-4-3 in the past, to win the title with two games to go, is quite significant. especially after their depleted confidence levels after last season, the Italian has overseen a truly astonishing turnaround.
From getting injured while training with his players to making an appearance at Chelsea's annual Christmas party, which previous managers only addressed through a video, and spending two hours with the staff there, the Blues have been warmed by the involvement of Conte in the scheme of things. His persona has touched everyone at the club and it is hardly surprising to see the Stamford Bridge terraces echoing with the chants of his name.
While his tactical nous might be talked about and paraded by various pundits across all TV studios, it his man management skills that have made a real difference at Chelsea. To put it simply: Antonio Conte the tactician owes a great deal of his success to the excellent man manager in him.
Published Date: Jan 23, 2017 12:30 PM | Updated Date: May 13, 2017 13:19 PM