“It doesn’t surprise me at all,” Gianluigi Buffon had remarked in December last year when he was asked about manager Antonio Conte’s feat of guiding Chelsea to the top of the Premier League. “He is a winner. He doesn’t do second place.”
It mattered little to Buffon that Conte had headed over to Europe’s most competitive league and into an entirely new environment. The Italian goalkeeper had studied Conte from close quarters for five years with both club and country – firstly with Juventus (2011-14) and subsequently with the national team (2014-16). Buffon’s words had simply reflected his unwavering confidence in his ex-manager’s coaching methods. And those words proved to be prophetic.
On Friday night, Chelsea were deservedly crowned the champions of England. Conte became only the fourth manager ever in Premier League era to win the league title in his maiden season in English football. Unlike the other three though, namely Jose Mourinho (2004-05) and Carlo Ancelotti (2009-10) with Chelsea and Manuel Pellegrini (2013-14) with Manchester City, Conte did his bit with a faltering squad of players that seemed far from delivering a title challenge – let alone the title itself.
Chelsea, as defending champions, had finished 10th last season. A time of crisis: it was the worst title defence in Premier League history, until they were outdone by Leicester on that front this season, and the club’s worst finish under Roman Abramovich, Chelsea’s Russian owner, who had taken over in 2003. Only once had The Blues previously finished outside the top three under Abramovich. Fan-favourite Mourinho had been sacked mid-campaign. His replacement, Dutchman Guus Hiddink, could not get the best out of the players. Virtually all the players had underperformed – and the future of several of them at the club was uncertain. Eden Hazard, Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa, three of Chelsea’s top players, had been called out by fans for their alleged roles in Mourinho’s exit. Morale was quite low, while the chance of a squad overhaul quite high.
Today, even a brief look at Chelsea’s first-choice playing XI during this title-winning campaign speaks volumes of Conte’s coaching pedigree – and tells you why he is earning easily the largest share of the plaudits for this triumph. It is a playing XI comprising underperformers from last season along with Victor Moses, a returning loanee who appeared to have no future at Chelsea; David Luiz, a Brazilian defender who is often a caricature of himself on the pitch; and Marcos Alonso, who on first look appeared to be a rather underwhelming addition in defence.
Moses is the poster boy of Conte’s transformation of Chelsea’s squad. At the start of this season, most Blues supporters must’ve forgotten that the Nigerian winger, who had been sent out on loan for three successive years to three different clubs, was still on Chelsea’s payroll. At Liverpool, he is best remembered for scuffing a late sitter during the 3-3 ‘Crystanbul’ draw at Crystal Palace in 2014. At Stoke City, his most fruitful stint, he reportedly rejected an option to return to Mourinho’s Chelsea mid-season, while West Ham did not rate him highly enough to exercise their option of making his loan move permanent last season. Moses was an accidental gift to Chelsea.
Under Conte, a previously wasteful winger has delivered world-class performances in a wingback role, providing width in attack and defensive cover at the same time. Moses has credited the manager’s equality mantra for reviving his career. The Italian didn’t judge players on his past; only on what he saw in person himself in preseason. Moses has made 33 appearances and is a vital cog in Chelsea’s all-conquering new 3-4-3 formation – so much so, in fact, that his handful of absences have left the side unbalanced.
Gary Cahill, a floundering centre-back, has found comfort in the three-man defence. So has Cesar Azpilicueta, a usually reliable full-back who had become error-prone last season. Luiz, meanwhile, proved his doubters wrong and reclaimed his defensive stature. His return to Chelsea for a second stint had invited ridicule from the majority of the football fraternity. But nobody is laughing now; only tipping their hats to him.
Thibaut Courtois returned to his high standards as well while Alonso, a key signing this summer, delivered exactly what he was brought in for: to provide balance and stability to a defence that had gotten used to the right-footed Azpilicueta playing on the left flank.
Further forward, defensive midfielder Nemanja Matic, player with the biggest decline last year, was expected to be in line for an exit in 2016. But Matic benefited from playing in the new formation alongside his new midfield partner and PFA Player of the Year N’Golo Kante – a double pivot which allowed the Blues’ front three to express themselves this season.
Forward Pedro seemed unsettled last season – his maiden one in English football – but has flourished under Conte and looked settled while Hazard has delivered on a consistent basis and exceeded expectations. The Belgian has scored 15 times this year, almost four times more than last season’s tally of just four goals in nearly the same number of appearances. He may have briefly fallen out of favour with fans in 2015/16 but at the age of 26, Hazard remains Chelsea’s most precious present and long-term asset and has set his sights on winning the Ballon d’Or with the London club – an ambition he could certainly fulfil while playing for one of the best tacticians around.
At various points in this season, each player has spoken highly of Conte’s training methods and his willingness to interact with each member of his squad. Togetherness has been the shining narrative coming out of the club. Players have also revealed how Conte was obsessed over recreating in-game routines and repeatedly worked on them till he found perfection – even if this meant extending training sessions. It’s no mean feat to switch formations in the middle of the season – which the manager did following a slow start and convincing defeats to Liverpool and Arsenal – and succeed as emphatically as he has with the London club
Aside from his tactical prowess, Conte’s management of egos and player-related decisions have been outstanding as well. Costa, controversy’s child yet Chelsea’s most consistent player across three sinusoidal seasons, was handled impeccably even following verbal disputes with the manager and a training ground bust-up earlier this year which had infuriated Conte. There was no sign of public criticism towards the player.
Out-of-form Oscar was shunted to China for a healthy profit. Branislav Ivanovic, a great servant for the club, was shown the door as well. Cesc Fabregas played second fiddle throughout the campaign yet delivered for his manager without any fuss when called upon. Same was the case with the likes of Willian and club captain John Terry. All players were comfortably aboard the Conte cruise.
Almost every Chelsea player improved significantly under Conte this season. It’s the signature of a high-quality coach who, ominously for other clubs, is only just getting started in England.
Updated Date: May 14, 2017 11:35 AM