Conte calls for patience as Chelsea’s master builder faces another moment of truth
Antonio Conte believes last season’s Premier League title success – “a miracle” in the Italian’s view – has earned him the right to oversee the major team rebuilding work that he insists needs to be done at Stamford Bridge.
Conte’s position at Chelsea has been
Old Trafford, unusually, was as calm as a mill pond. Barely a ripple of discontent. Too calm it seems for Jose Mourinho. So, out of the blue, the Manchester United manager threw a couple of rocks into the water.
It began when he reverted to safety-first tactics against Liverpool, continued when he appeared to court Paris St-Germain openly and culminated with him publicly rebuking his team for a woeful, passionless defeat at Huddersfield.
Now the waters are choppy, and it almost feels like the Portuguese prefers it that way. That a bit of controversy and edginess keeps everybody more focused.
Mourinho does not do serenity. Indeed, even though the club are second in the Premier League, you can expect him to wear a scowl when he emerges from the team bus today at Stamford Bridge. It has been like that for some time now.
Chelsea fans will probably recognise the Special One’s modus operandi. The ability, whether by design or not, to turn a picnic into a drama.
In his last managerial spell at Chelsea, the club descended from winning the 2015 Premier League into a toxic, relegation-threatened shambles. Chelsea had no alternative but to end his tenure for a second time, cutting short his second spell at the club hours after the staff Christmas lunch because of “palpable discord with the players”, according to technical director Michael Emenalo.
Manchester United seized the opportunity to recruit a serial winner and, hopefully, end the chaos at the club that followed Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement.
Mourinho should have been delighted to sign up for the job that he appeared to have coveted for so long. Far from it, judging by his demeanour questioned all season and the scrutiny will intensify if the 3-0 midweek Champions League loss at Roma is followed by a defeat to Jose Mourinho’s visiting Manchester United this afternoon.
The head coach claims he is unaffected by the pressure, but says perspective and patience are the qualities required by club’s decision-makers. Conte has made it clear there is more Mourinho eventually losing his cool after the collapse at the John Smith’s Stadium.
Not that the players did not deserve to be openly criticised for a performance so lacking in spirit. However, much of United’s support have been brought up on a manager in Ferguson who protected his players from public shaming.
The paint on the dressing room walls blistered after his infamous ‘hairdryer’ rants but Ferguson avoided criticising his charges in public. Instead the Scot diverted the blame for lacklustre performances. Often, Ferguson would turn the focus on the performance of the referee and not how bad United had been.
Mourinho wears his heart on his sleeve in a different way and a number of players, not least Luke Shaw, work to be done on strengthening the squad and while he believes he is the right man to do it, he accepts others may not agree.
“Honestly, I think I earned my time here with the win of last season,” he said. “I earned my time. I don’t like to ask for time. I like to tell the truth.
“It’s not simple to repeat and win. Above all here, in this league. It’s not simple. You have to consider the real situation that we are in now.
“We are trying to build something important. Now we are trying to put [in] fundamentals for this club. Don’t forget that in the last four, five years we lost a lot of important players ... players that wrote history in this club.
“If we think, ‘I can click my fingers and we are ready to fight’, it’s not simple. Last season happened – a miracle. It was a miracle because we had the same players who the season before finished tenth.”
Mourinho’s presence in the opposition dugout today will be a reminder that title success comes with no guarantee of job security, but Conte added: “I think the most important thing is to try always to tell the truth ... I’m a person who always prefers to tell a bad truth than a good lie. In this way, I have the respect of the people.
“We are trying to build something ... it’s important to have patience and then to have the time to do this. I understand it’s not for all to have patience, but patience is a big quality. I have not a lot of patience, honestly. But after last season ...I’m improving a lot.”
Battle of wits: Jose Mourinho faces Chelsea rival Antonio Conte (right) today, with Manchester United’s tactics under scrutiny