Just a couple days ago, we marked the one-year anniversary of Jose Mourinho's sacking — a sacking as unfathomable as inescapable, with Chelsea sitting just one point above the relegation zone. On the pitch, Chelsea were listless, useless, uninspired, poor. Off the pitch, the situation was even worse. Mourinho's relationship with the press had cratered and his relationship with the players appeared to be not much better. "Palpable discontent" was the famous phrase that Technical Director Michael Emenalo read out on Chelsea TV. Everything was the worst.
Contrast that with the stories around the club these days, and not just regarding the eleven-match winning streak and the six-point lead at the top of the table after seventeen rounds. Here's for example The Guardian's Dom Fifield on how Conte made the effort to show up in person to the staff holiday party (instead of just his pre-recorded message) and how that's just the latest example of the more family-like atmosphere he's managed to create at the club out of last season's ashes. Fifield likens it to the good vibes of the Ancelotti era and mentions the group dinners that we've heard about before as well.
A similar story in the Telegraph from Matt Law also talks about how Conte has dismantled the cliques and made one whole out of the many different friendship groups. He also talks about the squad socializing together and how all that's creating this wonderful atmosphere. Some of this is classic team-building stuff, some of it is just common sense, but it's all quite wonderful.
Of course, all that's easier when you're winning and Chelsea's eleven-match winning streak has certainly brought great joy and merriment during this festive period. But there's an underlying culture change to all this, both off the pitch and on, both in matches and on the training ground. We're all familiar with Conte's favorite words by now, but more importantly the squad seem to have bought into them fully as well. Work, fight, improve — been working on them from day one and now Conte gets to reap the benefits.
"After the defeat against Liverpool and also against Arsenal, it changed something in me, in the players, in the club, I think. We understood the way to go and have a different season, compared to last season. It was different. For this reason, we found the right solution, formation, but also to improve the quality of the work in all aspects. After these two bad games, we changed a lot."
"I like to win and to see my teams have two bad defeats - we deserved two bad defeats - I didn't like this and I tried to find the right solution on the pitch and outside of the pitch. We found the right solution with the players to explain that we all deserve better than last season."
"Now, the best thing you can see is players with great talent, with great commitment, putting their talent into the team. It's fantastic for me, but also for the fans, to see this commitment, this will to fight for every ball. This is fantastic."
-Antonio Conte; source: Telegraph
The work doesn't stop of course just because we're the Christmas number ones and Christmas number ones tend to win the league. The pressure's on more than ever. The fight must go on, and we must improve just as our opponents will improve and figure out how to beat the 3-4-3 system.
And so, while the most of the squad is off on a brief three-day holiday right now, Christmas itself will be spent preparing as usual for the next match, at home to AFC Bournemouth on Boxing Day.
"On Christmas Day the players will stay together like the normal situation before a game. We'll have a dinner in the hotel at nine o'clock, then we sleep, and the next day we will play the game when we hope to continue to win. Now we have a good pressure - after 11 wins we have positive pressure that we want to continue to win."
-Antonio Conte; source: Chelsea FC