Conte shows rivals what management really means
ANTONIO Conte looked on, unwavering, unruffled and utterly sure of himself – having privately decided how he was going to handle this prickly situation. It was the moment when he showed the Premier League what everyone in Italy was already aware of, and that there is so much more to him as a manager than tactical nous or manic intensity on the touchline.
It was January 14 and Chelsea had just beaten defending champions Leicester City 3-0, but that after what was probably the most difficult week of their season, with the victory not even the most important development of the day. The league leaders had lost 2-0 to Tottenham Hotspur to see their 13-game winning streak ended and, amid so many questions over whether that would cause the kind of drop-off in form that almost always happens after such runs, a bomb was then dropped on their campaign. News broke that top scorer Diego Costa had been the subject of an offer from China, and that there had been a flashpoint at training. Either way, he was out of the game at Leicester.
Given that the Spanish striker had scored a series of match-winners, and opposition managers like Mark Hughes were publicly saying “you wouldn’t want Chelsea to lose him because that could significantly damage their ability to win the league”, it felt like it could be a decisive point in the title race.
It was, but not in the way anyone thought. Chelsea made a statement by winning the match convincingly without Costa, but Conte made an even bigger statement in the press conference… by saying almost nothing about it.
“I have read a lot of speculation about this topic and I can tell you if there are problems – and I repeat ‘if ’ – with players, I am used to solving them in the changing room, not outside, not in press conferences,” he began. “If you want to know the truth, I’m ready to tell the truth. On Tuesday during the training session Diego stopped because he felt a pain in his back. From that moment he didn’t train during the week. For this reason he wasn’t available. This is the reason, the truth.”
Whether Conte was actually telling the truth on this didn’t really matter as regards his team. What mattered was his assured tone, and how he had so completely killed an issue that had briefly threatened to kill Chelsea’s season
A huge negative had become a massive positive. Conte had come across a situation, assessed it, responded, and actually used it to resounding effect. He had taken control. That may have well been the winning of the title, and is the story of the season.
Go through the elements and factors that have led to this league title. All of them involve Conte being dealt a hand, and turning it into the best possible scenario for his club.
There was first of all the Chelsea squad he took over. It probably shouldn’t be underestimated how much of a mess it was in at that point. They had come through a dismal season, when both the identity and very character of the team had been so questioned by their own supporters. Chelsea seemed a shapeless, directionless mess.
He quickly began to address that, but did it without signing any of his own players bar Marcos Alonso. While he quickly realised just how exceptional N’golo Kante was, he wanted Radja Naingollan ahead of the French powerhouse. Conte only got one of the signings he wanted, but he still got a remarkable response over what he had.
He has transformed a series of dismissed and disregarded players like Victor Moses, Alonso and David Luiz into decisive title winners. It shouldn’t be overlooked that these had been considered the Marouane Fellainis and Aleksandr Kolarovs of Chelsea.
Their enhancement, in part, came because Conte took assertive action in the first key moment of the season: the 3-0 defeat to Arsenal. With the way he immediately went to the transformative three-atthe-back formation, one of the season’s worst negatives had again been turned into its biggest positives. He also began to hone and influence a desire in his squad to make up for last season. It was the same with the Costa situation in January, the same with the surprise Crystal Palace defeat in April, and the same when Tottenham Hotspur cut their lead to four points with the defeat to Manchester United, and just before that defining cup semi-final.
Conte responded. He managed.
It wasn’t all about negatives turning into positives, either. Conte has maximised the advantages that have come his way, like the lack of European football. It does not feel a coincidence that, in an increasingly compact Premier League, the last two champions have not been involved in continental competition. It does give proper training-ground coaches like Conte the time to really instil the ideas, while keeping players fresher.
Next year should see all the Premier League “big six” involved in Europe for the first time since 2012-13, so the influence of that will be telling, as the field levels in that regard.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that it wasn’t quite a level playing field for Conte, either. He adapted supremely, and showed everyone how to adapt to situations thrown at them. In that, he also showed how he mastered all the key aspects of management: handling players and having an effect on them, motivating them, tactical insight and innovation. He ensured Chelsea never lost their focus.
He has shown what the “league of managers” should really have been about; why the money was spent on them over players. That is why everyone is now looking up at him. – The Independent