THE DIET OF EPL CHAMPIONS
From a nutty breakfast in the mountains to the title
IT wasn’t quite palpable discord but there was a degree of grumbling at the Falkensteiner Schlosshotel on the banks of the shimmering Worthersee in the Austrian Alps last July.
It wasn’t just the pre-match meals, although that was one issue of contention. When the Chelsea players first entered the dining room before the Rapid Vienna friendly match, some had walked out on seeing the array of nuts, dried fruit and snacks.
It wasn’t a rebellion. They just assumed they were in the wrong room and went searching for their usual scrambled egg, pizza and sandwiches.
They were soon put right, but it wasn’t only the food. It was the intensity of the work. Not old-school running, but physical work with exercise balls and bands. Then came the video analysis. Everyone knows pre-season will be hard, but there was a level of intensity and then, later, tactical analysis which surprised even Chelsea players. Pre-season woes High in the stands of the US Bank Stadium it was all too easy to see the flaws in Conte’s plans last August.
Sure, there were some positives to take: a few days previously they had been run ragged by Real Madrid in Michigan, two late goals from Eden Hazard flattering the side in a 3-2 defeat. At least here they had beaten AC Milan 3-1.
That couldn’t disguise the glaring weakness. Chelsea had started with a back four of Ola Aina, John Terry, Gary Cahill and Cesar Azpilicueta. Branislav Ivanovic was on the bench, but, frankly, when he came on it wasn’t a huge improvement on the 19-year-old Aina: one had guile but no legs, the other, coltish exuberance but not enough know-how.
Terry was the conundrum which had tortured Chelsea managers since 2013. Just one more season seemed to be the mantra — and it looked an ambitious one. Here was a team that desperately needed back-up. A right-back was imperative and perhaps two centre-halves. Certainly playing a back three seemed out of the question.
It wasn’t just the defence, however. Conte was experimenting with what was almost a 4-2-4 formation, with Bertrand Traore and Diego Costa up front. Good luck with that in the Premier League. With the defenders they had, it seemed an open invitation to opponents.
The transfers would come. August 31 saw a flurry of activity, but it was hardly overwhelming. Marcos Alonso, best remembered for his mediocrity at Bolton and Sunderland, joined from Fiorentina. David Luiz excited fans, if only for his iconic status, but he was 29, hardly famed for adding defensive stability.
These were not the first-choice, A-list signings. They looked like the make-doand-mend list. Michy Batshuayi and N’Golo Kante had arrived previously — the latter always looking a smart move — but Chelsea seemed to be short compared with their expensively-attired rivals. Still, wins followed at home to West Ham and Burnley and away at Watford. Maybe all would be well.
At Chelsea, they say there is only one thing worse than when the manager stops talking to the owner, and that is when the owner stops talking to the manager.
Even so, there is no surer sign that the team are in crisis than when Roman Abramovich is a frequent visitor to the training ground at Cobham. In the last week of September he was there a lot.
On the plus side, he was at least talking to Conte, along with directors Marina Granovskaia and Michael Emenalo, the firewall between the owner and the manager. Conte was explaining how this side, harried off the pitch at Stamford Bridge against Liverpool, had now capitulated to Arsenal.
The ultimate soft-centred team had outfought Chelsea, outplayed them. It was like a role reversal of the past 10 years. Conte looked ashen-faced when he came into the press conference that day. He said all the right words, but you suspected none of them would make any difference.
Maybe the 10th place of the previous season wasn’t the aberration? Perhaps the team needed extensive rebuilding?
Conte talked the owner through the planned change to a back three.
It was that week the tactical work kicked in at Cobham. Slowly, Conte walked his defenders through the system. Victor Moses had never played wing back, Azpilcueta had never played in a back three.
“I found the strength to change,” said Conte. “I took responsibility. And it was the key moment for us. Every single player found in themselves the best of themselves.”
It is not just the now well-told story of attending the staff Christmas party. He will go out of his way to sit down with staff in the canteen, to make time to talk.
There was the pre-season barbecue for team and families, which set the tone. Every six weeks, there is a team meal for players and coaching staff.
He will happily make time for any player who is disaffected. His door is open but it is the player, not the manager, who has to take the initiative.
He warned staff that although he would be normal through the week, he was a different beast on match-day. Conte paces the dressing room. If he sees a player, a thought will dart into his head and he’ll remind him of his duties. Foundations laid
Defeat at Arsenal worried Conte, but it at least precipitated their 13-match winning run and a change of formation which provided the foundation for the title victory, but there was an even worse moment, according to Chelsea insiders. It came just four weeks ago at Manchester United.
Conte was shocked by the 2-0 defeat, or rather by the limp performance of his team. He was genuinely concerned that they had lost focus. The next week in training the new rules were imposed: no visitors at the training ground, no one outside the squad in the canteen.
He explained why — he had been part of a Juventus team that had thrown away a title when they were nine points clear with eight games to go in 2000. It caused him months of insomnia. He wasn’t about to let it happen again.
Conte was happy for them to know he was concerned. It is why, when the annals of the season are written, the eight-day period when they beat Tottenham in the FA Cup semi-final, defeated a Southampton team coming off 10 days’ rest and won at Everton, who had won eight consecutive games at Goodison Park, will be viewed as when the title was won. Daily Mail