It’s not what we do once in a while that shapes our lives. It’s what we do consistently – Tony Robbins
It’s a good time now to be a Chelsea fan. The Blues are celebrating their second Premier League title in 3 years and have a chance to do a domestic double when they square off against Arsenal in the final of the FA Cup. It is a testament to the winning mentality prevalent at the club right from ruthless owner Roman Abramovich down to inspiring manager Antonio Conte who is no stranger to a winning attitude.
The Italian oversaw Juventus’ return to the pinnacle of Italian football, a foundation that current Juve coach Max Allegri has used wisely to lead the Bionconeri to 2 Champions League finals in 3 years. The story of Conte laying into Juventus legend Gigi Buffon when the custodian spoke about bonuses to the manager despite having wrapped up the title is one that should give an indication to fans and players on the kind of mentality that Conte fosters at clubs.
More importantly, the key thing to take note of is that despite Juventus’ dominance in Serie A in Conte’s inaugural season in charge in 2011-12, there was no room for complacency in the ranks. Jose Mourinho’s ill-fated third season at Chelsea suffered from precisely this, a price that the Portuguese paid by being removed from his job. Conte’s Chelsea this season were out to prove two things – that the last season was just a blip and secondly that the players proving their doubters wrong when their stock was at an all time high at the end of the victorious 2014-15 campaign.
The Italian needs to be given credit for stepping out of his comfort zone in Italy and the national team, taking a faltering team and stamping his authority on them to lead them to a title in the first season. There were sceptics who were armed with arguments on how Conte can struggle in a new country, a new league and the inability of his tactical systems that he used in Italy to work in England. The former Arezzo coach answered all of these questions in the only way he knows – hard work. The two words became synonymous to Conte as how the word ‘character’ became linked to Brendan Rodgers.
The change was evident as Conte changed the players’ diets, put them through double training sessions and laid down a law that only the ones who did well in training would be in the first 11. But it never meant that he was never about fun. Conte was known to spend time with every member of the Chelsea staff right down to the most junior member. His appearance at the staff party during Christmas was one that was heavily appreciated by everyone, an act that was only repeated by another Italian title winning manager at Chelsea, Carlo Ancelotti.
The Blues took to Conte’s 3-4-3 system very quickly and right from the game against Hull City, the fixture that saw the formation’s debut, people noticed how the system played to Chelsea’s strengths and gave their most attacking players plenty of room to wreak havoc. In addition, players like Victor Moses, Marcos Alonso and David Luiz, who raised more eyebrows than confidence, were performing week in week out in full throttle.
The tactical switch to 3-4-3 show why Conte was so successful at Juventus; Matic and Kante, obviously, played key roles
What was more heartening to see is that Conte was willing to give the young players a chance to shine. Nathaniel Chalobah, Ola Aina and Ruben Loftus-Cheek received a lot more game time and put them on the path towards a regular first team slot, something that has not been achieved since a certain John Terry made his debut.
In a dressing room with a powerful presence like John Terry, who has been the heartbeat of the team for years, it would always be difficult for a new manager to come in and break the news that he would not be a regular starter. Conte never shied away from calling Terry his captain whenever his name cropped up and Terry to his credit, showed great class and selflessness to recognise that the team was winning without him and that pushing to be included in the first 11 would jeopardise that.
What next for Chelsea is the question on everybody’s mind? Now Conte would have the welcome headache of playing in the Champions League. It would also mean that he would not have the luxury of a full week to prepare his team for league games and squad rotations would be the order of the day to keep the players fresh. With names like Virgil Van Dijk, Alvaro Morata and Romelu Lukaku doing the rounds, Conte is clearly not one to rest on the laurels from this season and has begun work on his plans for a title defence.
By recalling Academy graduate Andreas Christensen from his loan at Borussia Monchengladbach, Conte has a top class centre-half ready at his disposal for free. He would need to keep a close eye on other Chelsea loanees who have scaled heights like Bertrand Traore at Ajax and Tammy Abraham at Bristol City, both of whom can take the weight of scoring goals off Diego Costa.
Conte would also need to adhere to Chelsea’s new business model of selling players to finance buys for new ones would mean that he doesn’t have the free-wheeling spending power of old. This would mean that he would need to sort out the issue of rumoured moves for Diego Costa and Eden Hazard to China and Real Madrid respectively.
Chelsea are the champions of England. But what defines a great title winning side is the ability to retain the same to create a dynasty, something that Jose Mourinho and Sir Alex Ferguson did during their times at the helm of Chelsea and Manchester United respectively. With Conte, Chelsea have someone who has been there and done that with Juventus and the knowledge that he will not let the players become complacent, thus fully living up to his nickname of ‘Martello’ – the hammer.