The difference between Chelsea’s current title surge and our pitiful title defence last season is startling. And yet, aside from the additions of David Luiz, N’Golo Kanté and Marcos Alonso, the core of the team remains largely unchanged. So, what is responsible for such a sudden and drastic change of fortunes? A certain Antonio Conte.
As has been widely highlighted within the football community, Conte’s decision to introduce the 3-4-3 formation — a strategy that was mostly foreign to a team who had been drilled for years to the 4-2-3-1 formation — has certainly been fruitful. During the 20 league games in which the tactic has been deployed, Conte can boast a winning ratio of 85% which starkly contrasts with the 50% achieved in Chelsea’s first six league games of the season. In fact, Tottenham remains the only team to have succeeded against the new system, with the Blues avoiding defeat in 19 out of the 20 games — including a club record 13-match winning streak — and thus, unsurprisingly, sitting on top of the Premier League flaunting a seven-point advantage over their rivals.
No one could have envisaged such a strong title challenge having languished in the bottom half of the table for much of the previous season. Many of us, myself included, hadn’t considered the masterful impact that Conte’s appointment would make.
It’s difficult to recall any other manager having such an infectiously positive immediate influence on the club. Both Mourinho and Ancelotti are honourable mentions, yet both inherited teams in a comparatively stable state. The conditions in which Conte inherited the team were arguably the weakest that the club has been throughout the Abramovich era. The Blues were without European football for the first time in two decades, having recorded the worst title defence in the history of the Premier League (thankfully it seems that Leicester is poised to assume that status). There was talk of mass exodus, of long-term pain and suffering. Things were, in a word, bleak.
The turnaround has been astonishing and exceptional.
The 47-year-old Juventus legend has quickly endeared himself to the Chelsea faithful. He’s proven to be an astute tactician, a shrewd man-manager and most importantly a true gentleman. His determination and will to fight, to win, to work, and to improve is unrivalled. Using his substantial experience and success both as a player and a manager, he has managed to re-create the winning culture at Chelsea in just a few short months.
Conte’s transition to the Premier League has been seamless; the Blues have dropped only 15 points so far this season. But as Conte himself can testify, nothing at this stage of the season has actually been accomplished yet. He was once part of a Juventus side (managed by Carlo Ancelotti at the time) who were certain favourites for the title before losing four of their last eight league games to hand Lazio the Scudetto in 1999-2000. Conte has since admitted that this traumatic title collapse led to seven sleepless nights. One can sense that this particular experience more than any other has contributed to his unwavering concentration, a trait that has characterised Chelsea’s success in the league this season.
Conte’s approach is exceedingly practical — he is the epitome of ‘hands-on’ as his touchline antics so vividly demonstrate. Only last weekend I witnessed Conte screaming his lungs out at a ball-boy who couldn’t have been much older than nine years old for not giving the ball quick enough. It’s his urge for perfection that has engendered the dramatic revival at Stamford Bridge.
With a remarkable 25 victories out of a possible 32 so far, Conte can claim a higher win ratio than any other manager in the history of the club. The sample size is quite small still, but it does serve as an appropriate indicator of how well he’s adapted to life in South West London. The former Juventus manager has also restored the fear-factor to Stamford Bridge. After sustaining defeats to the likes of Southampton, Bournemouth and Crystal Palace last season, Chelsea have only been beaten at home once this season, and have yet to be overcome while using the 3-4-3 formation on home soil.
It is important to repeat that nothing has actually been achieved yet, though Chelsea’s form has been splendid and the club’s fifth Premier League title is well in sight. With any luck, Conte could even emulate his former coach Carlo Ancelotti and win The Double in his first season in England! Set for a new contract in the summer and about to be joined by the rest of his family, this is hopefully just the splendid first act from Chelsea’s leading man.