From a nutty break­fast in the moun­tains to the ti­tle

New Straits Times - - Front Page -

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.

Rus­sian rules

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.”

Per­sonal touch

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

An­to­nio Conte

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