Antonio Conte transformed the foundations of Chelsea en route to taking them to Premier League title
After a resounding 0-3 loss at Arsenal in September, Antonio Conte switched to a back three in defence which transformed Chelsea into an unstoppable force — the club won their next 13 league games.
As Chelsea celebrated Michy Batshuayi’s title-winning goal at the Hawthorns on Friday night, one thought of the figures who had been a part of at least three of the club’s four Premier League triumphs. Jose Mourinho was probably still pleased with Manchester United’s run to the Europa League final; Frank Lampard was in the Sky Sports studio, offering his comments on a title his beloved club had won with utter dominance; John Terry, well, was on the bench, just like how he had spent most of the league campaign.
When Chelsea will be handed the trophy on the final day of the season, Terry will be the only one among the three to join the celebrations. As the designated captain, he will also lift the trophy with the man who has worn the armband in his absence — Gary Cahill. But once the festivities are over, Terry will bid goodbye to the club. If one were to believe Lampard, his old teammate’s departure is going to leave a massive void.
“If he's going to leave, this is the year to do it. He hasn't played a huge part on the pitch, but the part he's played behind the scenes, I know for a fact, once he goes, everyone will appreciate him even more. Someone has to take the mantle now. He's such a big miss for them. Gary Cahill, maybe he'll step up even more now, but John Terry is so important for this club.”
Although Lampard did not really elaborate on what Terry brought to the club this season, one expects that the departure of such a seminal figure will prompt nostalgic reactions.
Yet, the little time Terry has spent on the pitch this season means that this is the first title won by Chelsea in the Roman Abramovich era without a tangible contribution from Mourinho, Lampard and Terry. Indeed, it finally seems that the Blues have emerged out of that influential triumvirate’s shadow.
Even years after he had left the club, Mourinho frequently referred to it as ‘my Chelsea’. Such was the devotion he inspired from his players that a few of them reportedly shed tears when he quit the club in September 2007. Indeed, despite his acrimonious departure from Chelsea, Mourinho was known to keep in touch with some squad members and Abramovich through ‘playful’ texts and calls. During his tumultuous stint with the club as the manager, Andre Villas-Boas was quite aware of the ex-manager’s special relationship with Chelsea. “His is a presence ever felt in the club,” Villas-Boas once said.
The sense of Mourinho’s popularity was reinforced by the influential footballers who shared a sentimental bond with him — Terry and Lampard. As long as the duo was at the club, the residual influence of the Portuguese manager was likely to sustain. Mourinho did not remodel Chelsea in the manner of Johan Cruyff at Ajax but the culture of winning established by him had its biggest proponents in Terry and Lampard. They signified pragmatism and winning-at-all-costs, attributes which their old leader tended to appreciate.
But, then, Mourinho damaged his legacy. He returned to Chelsea for a second tenure, insisting he was ‘The Happy One’ as he returned home. Curiously, in the opening weeks and months, Mourinho insisted that he wanted to build a dynasty at the club. For a man who was already a dynastic figure at Stamford Bridge, it was a peculiar wish to make. Even when he was absent, his charisma shone through the corridors of the club.
However, the manner of Chelsea’s collapse last season ensured that Mourinho was seen as a mortal figure for arguably the first time. Within months, the manager destroyed his relationship with the players, Abramovich and even the fans. The fallout from the Eva Carneiro episode presented him as a curmudgeonly figure whose own interests superseded everything. Importantly, the people who had always stood by him no longer wielded the influence of old. Lampard had left the club while Terry was sidelined by a lack of form. As Chelsea’s title defence collapsed, so did Mourinho’s charismatic persona.
It was a measure of his dropping stature that the now United manager was called ‘Judas’ by a section of home fans when his side met the Blues for a FA Cup quarter-final in March. Of course, by then, Chelsea was on their way to grab another league title. As the club brushed opponents aside with consummate ease, it became obvious that the previous season under Mourinho was the aberration.
Chelsea’s second league title in three seasons, though, has an interesting parallel with Mourinho’s first campaign. In the 2004-05 Premier League, Chelsea began their season impressively by earning 14 points out of a possible 18 but their attack remained disjointed. Only six goals were scored as Lampard failed to excel in the number 10 role.
Mourinho recognised the team’s problems and shifted from a midfield diamond to a 4-3-3 setup. English football, perennially playing catch-up to the tactical systems of the day, was caught out by the change. As most sides still relied on the 4-4-2, Mourinho’s men breezed to the title. The football may not have been spectacular — fullbacks Wayne Bridge and Paulo Ferreira spent little time in the opposition half — but it was highly effective.
This season, again, Chelsea effected a tactical change which more or less won the title for the club. After a resounding 0-3 loss at Arsenal in September, Antonio Conte switched to a back three in defence which transformed his side into an unstoppable force — the club won their next 13 league games. It is a measure of Conte’s adaptability that he readily ditched the 4-2-3-1, which had been the default formation when the team was being prepared for the season. Neither did he employ the 4-3-1-2, the system which was the subject of his thesis for the Uefa Pro Licence.
However, unlike the sides administered by Mourinho, Conte stuck to his belief in pressing the opponent through different approaches. David Luiz’s tendency to push up from the defence and his comfort on the ball helped as the other two central defenders could cover for him; the full-backs Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses relentlessly ran on the flanks to sustain the pressure. Of course, this had consequences for the forwards too as they constantly found space between the lines; Eden Hazard’s flourishing form is a veritable case in point.
After Chelsea went top of the table in November, their advantage over other contenders never came under serious threat. Not since Everton in 1962-63 has a side relied on a back three in defence to claim the championship. Of course, Conte’s success with the system when he led Juventus and Italy meant that it was not an experiment in the dark.
In the Chelsea manager, one can see the receptiveness to ideas and a commitment to evolution which is the hallmark of coaches trained at Italy’s famed academy — Coverciano. However, once Conte’s plans started producing the desired results, it was unlikely that a Terry — whose lack of pace has dogged him throughout his career — was going to find a regular place in the team. The last remnants of the Mourinho era were slowly banished.
With the Italian coach earning his fourth domestic title in a row (he won the first three in Turin), it is not a surprise that Chelsea want to offer him an improved and a longer contract. However, looking towards the next season, Lampard did have a word of caution for the manager and his old side. “The formation they play won't be a surprise for anybody and all the other teams behind them will be back stronger.”
For Conte to win successive league titles like Mourinho, he will need to ensure that his side continues to believe in his methods and principles. He has already shown that he will not accept any attempts to hamper squad unity, as seen in the Diego Costa episode. Tactically, Conte will continue to push ‘automisation’. Hazard has spoken about how the team is prepared to carry out set moves in attack — ‘shadow-play’ as termed by the Italian manager — so as to maintain the overall shape. Whether the players can spend numerous hours on the training ground once European football becomes a part of the schedule is a moot point.
In the Premier League era, Conte is just the fourth manager to lift the league title at the first time of asking. The first one to do it? Mourinho in 2004-05. Since the Portuguese coach departed in 2007, none of the subsequent nine managers came close to transforming the foundations of the club. Not even Carlo Ancelotti, who won the league in 2009-10.
Speaking after the title win was confirmed, Terry discussed how it had been a different experience for him this time around. “Listen it's fantastic for me but these boys have been on the field doing it week-in, week-out. Everyone's been brilliant so I'm delighted and it's been a delight for me to sit there and watch it and see it from a different perspective.”
As he leaves the club this summer, everyone else is seeing Chelsea in a different light too. Mourinho, as he reminded everyone earlier this season, is still the club’s most successful manager ever. But his influence is no longer the same. Chelsea are in the clutches of a transformation. The silverware matters, but if Conte sees the project through, therein may lie his biggest triumph.
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