By his own admission Antonio Conte’s English isn’t the best, but his official Chelsea presentation last Thursday left few in doubt about what he considers his defining characteristic. “The most important message is that I’m a worker,” he said. “I like to work. I like to work, and I know only this road to win … I know only this way: work, work, work.”
Chelsea fans able to stay awake through Euro 2016 (surely the dullest international tournament in living memory) will no doubt have been impressed by Conte’s ability to transmit his work ethic to his team. The cohesion, commitment and spirit of 2016’s Azzurri was evident from their opening win against Belgium and peaked in a highly impressive last 16 demolition of Spain.
Italy’s squad was mediocre by their standards. Graziano Pelle and Emanuele Giaccherini in the starting 11? The fact that Conte was able to mould these players into a tactically astute, efficient and progressive side bodes well for his time at Chelsea, where, last season’s debacle notwithstanding, the quality of the players at his disposable will be considerably higher.
Conte has a no nonsense reputation in the game. Andrea Pirlo’s recent autobiography highlighted the dangers of a half-time Conte teamtalk, when water bottles and other objects would regularly crash off the walls as the manager vented his fury.
Leonardo Bonucci revealed that the Italy players had taken to calling Conte “the Godfather” during Euro 2016. “That means when he talks, you listen. You do what he says and you don’t argue.” It’s worth pointing out that Bonucci isn’t easily intimidated. This is the man who reportedly chased an armed robber down a Turin street.
Fans angered by the timidity and passivity of so many players last season should be delighted to welcome Conte to Chelsea. It’s tough to think of any manager in world football, save for Athletic Madrid’s Diego Simeone, less likely to tolerate a lack of commitment or courage from his players.
Setting the right tone will be one of Conte’s first tasks and it’s perhaps telling that shortly after his appointment a contract extension was finally offered to John Terry. According to Conte, Terry is “a great player with a great personality, with great charisma. I like to speak with him because I know that he knows the club, the right spirit to play in this club.”
Keeping Terry at the club should have been a no-brainer for any manager, but Conte’s work at Juventus suggests that he values the character of experienced players. The tough, chiseled figures of Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli were forged into a formidable back three by Conte and formed the bedrock for three successive Serie A titles.
Conte also brought Pirlo to Juventus and oversaw a late career renaissance for the midfield maestro, discarded by AC Milan in the belief that he was past his best. To Conte “there is no young or old, only victory or failure.”
So what changes will Conte seek to make at Chelsea? The success he enjoyed using a back three with Juventus and the Italian national team has led some to speculate that he’ll look to do the same with Chelsea. Conte addressed this question at his presentation and insisted that he isn’t wedded to a single system.
To decide on what system to play, Conte noted, you have to consider “characteristics; the talent of the players. Then you decide. In the past, I started my season with the other teams with one idea of football, and then I changed because I saw that these players, or the system of play for these players wasn’t good.”
The current roster of players at Chelsea don’t seem especially well-suited to a back three. It’s possible that Conte could protect Terry’s aging legs with cover from Zouma and Ivanovic, but are Azpilicueta and Rahman suited to wing-back roles? Where would Chelsea’s expensive roster of wingers, Hazard, Pedro and Willian, fit into a 3-5-2?
Journalist Paolo Bandini has noted that prior to his Juventus days Conte “enjoyed great success with an attacking 4-2-4” at Bari and Siena. The quick transitions of a 4-2-4 and the ability to utilise the pace of Hazard and Willian may seem a more attractive proposition to Conte as he enters the hurly burly of the Premiership.
In the last week or so surprising rumours have emerged linking Cesc Fabregas to Old Trafford. It has been suggested that Conte has doubts about whether Fabregas can play in a midfield two. N’Golo Kante, who covered so much ground last season there seemed to be more than one of him on the pitch, is the kind of midfielder who may be better suited to a Conte 4-2-4 and was brought on board for £30 million this week.
Michy Batshuayi, the young Belgium forward, has also joined for a fee around the £30 million mark. Whether Batshuayi will partner or act as an understudy to Diego Costa remains to be seen, but he offers another option and other signings will surely follow.
It seems likely that reclaiming a Champions League spot will be the primary target the Chelsea board has set for Conte this year. While there is championship-winning potential in the squad (they did, after all, win the championship the year before last), after finishing in such a lowly spot last year it would seem unfair to expect Conte to claim the Premiership in his first season.
The competition will be stiff. Tottenham and Arsenal should be every bit as strong this season as last and the arrival of Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho at the Manchester clubs should substantially elevate the level of both. Throw in Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, likely to have assimilated some of their eccentric manager’s gegenpressing ideas, and defending champions Leicester and a top four finish seems far from guaranteed.
It will be fascinating to watch Conte go about his business. In a league that seems to be stockpiling the greatest characters in management – Guardiola, Mourinho, Wenger, Klopp – Conte is a worthy addition to the cast and won’t be intimidated by any of them.
Conte throws himself about like a ragdoll on the touchline, protesting decisions and getting in the faces of the opposition. There is an Italian fire in him that only victory can quench. “I hope there’s a small flame flickering here that can hopefully grow into a blazing inferno,” he said on Thursday. Chelsea fans will be hopeful, too.