Starting the season with a new, foreign manager who had no experience working in England, fans and pundits alike expected Chelsea to undergo a "transitional" period, improving on last season’s 10th place but only as far as to challenge for a top four spot.
However, the turnaround in our fortunes has been much more drastic than that. Following heart-crushing defeats to Liverpool and Arsenal, Conte the system. Thirteen games won later, Chelsea and the 3-4-3 sit five points clear atop the Premier League pile.
In an interview with transfer guru Gianluca Di Marzio of Sky Sports Italia, Chelsea technical director Michael Emenalo spoke about Conte's influence and his achievements in the first half of the season.
"I think that as a club, we always expect and ask of our Coach to win the title! Jokes aside, we spoke about it. I don’t think that any manager has the league title as a mandatory win, because at the end of the day, only one club finishes on top every season."
"That being said, you never tell a Coach not to win the title. You can support him, give him the resources to be competitive, but when it's all said and done, the Coach decides what targets to meet."
"Either way, it was Conte himself who spoke about title aspirations. After all he wouldn’t be a world class Coach if he thought: ‘No, I just came to be competitive, not to win’. At the same time, we know that we’re coming off of a 10th place finish in last season’s Premiership, so there’s a lot to improve on."
"I believe that without having a specific target, we all know that assuming things keep going well, we’ll have great chances. We still haven’t won anything, but we know that we’re a competitive side. We find ourselves exactly where we would have wanted to be."
-Michael Emenalo; Source: Sky Sports Italia via Football Italia
The job of a new head coach after the (second) sacking of the legendary José Mourinho in December 2015 was never going to be easy, but Emenalo revealed that Conte had always been Chelsea's top choice from the get-go, even as we had to navigate his tricky employment situation and commitments with Italy.
"We had to be careful and went through the process of waiting, as at the time he was the Coach of the Italian national team, a nation that is passionate about football. We were very respectful of the Italian national team and didn’t want to upset anyone."
"Once we decided that we needed to make a change and did a complete analysis of the handful of options, Conte was always top in our minds. We played against them and I remember thinking his Juventus team was something very special."
"He has brought a lot of knowledge, so many things to teach the players tactically, but also a professional approach to the game. I think this has given the players confidence."
Despite his credentials, Conte hit a rough patch quite quickly with the defeats to Liverpool and Arsenal in September. Coupled with the unfortunate draw at Swansea in the same month, the tabloids and the bookies were already claiming that Conte was on the verge of getting sacked only three months after arriving at the club. According to Emenalo however, there was never any such risk — a claim that certainly falls in line with all the other stories at the time of Abramovich authorizing spending sprees after meeting multiple times with the new head coach.
"There was never any risk [of sacking]. It was indicative of the kind of support Mr. [Roman] Abramovich has and Mr. Conte has for the club and the board."
As Conte continues to adapt, learn, and improve (and work hard), he’s continuing to impress in matters both on and off the pitch. With him taking every challenge in stride so far, Emenalo’s hoping for Conte to stay at Chelsea 'forever'.
"One of the first things I understood about Antonio is that difficult moments are moments to learn. We wanted to give him the freedom to speak in Italian, but we were very impressed that he wanted to communicate in English from the first day."
"Everyone can see he is doing an absolutely sensational job, so I am not surprised that the fans and everybody loves him. We love him too. Personally, I think there’s an opportunity for him to stay forever. Bravo."
-Michael Emenalo; source: Sky Sports Italia via Football Italia