Antonio Conte
Antonio Conte

What a difference a year makes. It seems fitting that 12 months on from the day that three Chelsea players were labelled rats during a 3-1 victory over Sunderland for their part in what was perceived to be a treasonous coup against their mighty leader, the same side were on the wrong end of a rather more routine and uneventful 1-0 score line. Palace suffered the same fate yesterday in another Chelsea performance that screamed stability.

This symmetrical quirk, from chaotic crisis club on the brink of civil war to the more serene surroundings of the top of the Premier League table, truly epitomises the transformation undergone during Conte’s promising start. Any talk of a palpable discord has become a distant memory, as the change to a 3-4-3 has resulted ina run of 11 wins from as many games, with 27 goals for and a miserly two against. Seemingly devoid of any hangover from last year’s aberration, a tangible buzz has returned to SW6, and Conte’s revolution is well underway.

Remarkably enough, the leading lights of Chelsea’s resurgence this year consist of a strange mixture of the suspected protagonists of the Mourinho Putsch, and those who the same man deemed surplus to requirements during his second spell.

Victor Moses, farmed out to Liverpool, Stoke and West Ham respectively during Mourinho’s three years in charge, has returned from the wilderness to turn many metaphorical heads with his trailblazing form at right wing-back, whilst the media’s favourite punchbag, David “panic buy” Luiz, has looked assured at the base of a watertight back three. Diego Costa and Eden Hazard, whose gutless and insipid displays somewhat instigated Chelsea’s collapse last year, have been involved in a staggering 79% of the team’s Premier League goals this year.

If more evidence was needed of Conte’s reformation, then how about John Terry’s dwindling presence in the first-team? As the only remaining stalwart of the Mourinho era, any previous moves to faze the iconic captain out of the side have been met with unanimous acrimony from fans and former players alike. It is a sure sign of how far the club has progressed that even the notoriously vocal centre-half has embraced this new era, and the limited playing time it entails, without so much of a quibble. Such oddities must be rather galling for Mourinho, but they are also highly indicative of Conte’s innovative approach.

As fascinating as these parallels may be in their own right, what they truly embody is the dawn of a new era at Chelsea. It is within this framework that we may be able to see last season’s cataclysmic debacle as a “necessary evil,” whereby Mourinho’s often beneficial, but sometimes restrictive, stranglehold on the club came to a much needed end.

This is not to denigrate or disregard the achievements of one of the most important figures in the club’s history. Ever since Mourinho’s arrival at the club in 2004, as a fresh-faced upstart with the corresponding tactical pedigree to back up his sense of self-worth, his legend has been writ large at Stamford Bridge, and rightly so.

This is a man who ushered in a decade of success for the club with two blistering title-winning campaigns in his first two years. In total, he masterminded 3 of the club’s 4 PL title winning campaigns, with a further 5 domestic honours to his name in other competitions. In short, he precipitated and propelled a process whereby Chelsea F.C. went from relative mediocrity to serial winners.

As a consequence of this though, rightly or wrongly, the self-proclaimed “Special One” has held a palpable sway over the club and the fans. The most obvious manifestation of this unique relationship came in Chelsea’s Champions League elimination at the hands of Inter Milan in 2010, when he was given the kind of rapturous reception confined exclusively to a prodigal son.

Several manager’s came and went in the interceding years between Mourinho’s first and second spell at the club. Grant, Scolari, Vilas Boas and Benitez were scorned. Hiddink, Di Matteo and Ancelotti fared better, yet, whilst all were uniformly loved, none were idolised in the same way as Mourinho. As such, his return, under the new epithet of the “Happy One,” was as predictable as a Chelsea win at home to Spurs.

Here he was, Chelsea’s eternal saviour, the universal solution to all our problems. If his spectre did not already loom large enough over the club, his prestige was further inflated with another title win in 2015, and the hypnotic spell he had cast over SW6 looked as if it would continue unabated. Yet, half a year later, with a downturn in form on the pitch accompanied by perpetual off-field controversy, the Messiah was gone.

Whilst such a spectacular fall from grace was anything but desired at the time, an element of perspective has seen a dampening of the initial shock and hostility that met the decision. As such, it is difficult not to conceive of this as a rather seminal moment in the club’s recent history; a clean break, so to speak. With such an abrupt end to the second coming, this notion that Mourinho held all the answers to any Chelsea-related predicament had been entirely obliterated.

So ugly was the manner of his downfall, a fact that can be openly acknowledged with the benefit of time, that the revelry has disappeared, and his reputation at the club has been irreversibly diminished. From one of our own, to disowned. So far has his star fallen that he was even derided in the dying minutes of Chelsea’s 4-0 annihilation of United at Stamford Bridge at the back end of October. No man is bigger than the club.

Unfortunately for him, his recent trials and tribulations at United both on and, predictably, off the pitch, (with his one man war against the F.A. raging on), suggest that he may be in a process of irrevocable decline. Last season looks less an abnormality and more the beginnings of an undesirable trend

Significantly for Chelsea though, the liberating effect that this process of purification has had on the club should not be underestimated, and seems to have had an immediate impact. Conte’s revolution can progress unimpeded, free from the bonds of Mourinho’s long, inhibiting shadow that, even in his absence, haunted the corridors at Cobham when results took a turn for the worse. The year long self-pitying is over, and the club is looking forward once again, reasserting their relevance in world football one win at a time.

Mourinho’s parting shot as he left the club was to tell us that his phenomenal work had brought his players ‘to a level that is not their level.’ If that is to be believed, then Conte has taken them above and beyond and then some.

Contribution from Harry Eckersley

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