The Premier League is a tough managerial playground. Jose Mourinho has been fired by the same club, twice. It chewed out Louis van Gaal, not before making a fool out of David Moyes. Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger have a lot of bragging rights, and now, in its twenty-fifth season since rebranding, it has attracted the likes of Josep Guardiola, whose “project” Manchester City was dismantled by Chelsea FC (with a little bit of good fortune) this last weekend.
On December 17 in 2015, Chelsea Football Club had come full circle. Just over 13 years since Romam Abramovich purchased the London club, the board sacked their most enigmatic manager Jose Mourinho for the second time. His second coming was prophetic. Mourinho won the league in his second year, after a gap of four years for the club. The trendsetting duo of Roman, and Jose, the pioneering faces of the cash-rich Premier League were inseparable. Round two lasted around 30 months. Another makeshift manager ending the season at Stamford Bridge, with no trophies. Three months before the 2016 European Championship, Conte announced he would not continue his role with the national squad. He wanted to work in club football again.
Making a team tick like clockwork
Conte arrived at Chelsea FC at the beginning of the 2016-‘17 season. As a player, Conte’s rise was measured. He won multiple trophies at Juventus, and captained the team. He turned out twenty times for Italy, and collected silver medals at the 1994 World Cup and 2000 European Championship. A central midfielder, Conte never played outside Italy. Chelsea is his first non Italian management job. As a player, Conte was coached by Giovanni Trappatoni, Marcello Lippi, Carleto Ancelotti, Arrigo Sacchi and Eugenio Fascetti. His style is robust, and as expected draws heavily from classic defensive stability, but his discipline and the rules he sets his players, make this system tick like clockwork.
The football Chelsea are playing right now was not achieved on day one of this season. It took a considerable amount of either humiliation, or vindication on part of the Italian. On the back of a disastrous title defence season, Conte walked into one of the most difficult situations a new manager can get into. Even Jurgen Klopp’s appointment at Liverpool was not met with such high expectation.
In the month of September, Chelsea picked up one point from a possible nine, lost to Liverpool at home, and Arsenal away. With a win against West Ham, Watford, and Burnley, Conte played it safe, and continued with a formation that the squad was familiar with. Four at the back, a double-pivot in the middle, three attacking players, spearheaded by one forward. This did not work.
Liverpool beat them 2-1 in London, and a trip to the Emirates ended 3-0 in favour of the home team. Chelsea were in trouble. Towards the end of the defeat against Arsenal, Conte subbed on Marcos Alonso, Michy Batshuayi, and Pedro, and instructed his team to play with three at the back, in attack, and five in defence. Conte waited for his team to collapse, had a disastrous month in September, before turning it around with a fresh, new system.
The Conte way
Conte is known as a hard taskmaster. His players have often reiterated how dedicated he is to his idea of football. He often uses the word “passion” football as a generic descriptor of his philosophy. when addressing his idea with the press. Conte’s playing career was never glittered with individual skill, or any kind of glitz. He was a workhorse with blinders on, and traded self-expression for discipline. The idea his team is built on in very similar.
Conte’s decision to adopt a back three was catalysed by the lack of defensive cohesiveness shown by his back four. Individual errors, poor positioning around the box, and being caught in a 2v2 counter attack situation in defence saw them concede nine goals in six league games. Chelsea’s lowest point: four unmarked players at the back post 16 minutes into the game against Liverpool at Stamford Bridge.
Conte’s 3-4-3 relies on the coach having the last word. Conte does not fancy glamorous football, and his idea of winning is very similar to Jose Mourinho, however, the Italian substitutes the Portuguese’s astute pragmatism, with a more calculated approach at hurting the opposition. His team plays five at the back when defending, and three at the back in attack.
Branislav Ivanovic’s poor form has relegated the Russian to the bench, while David Luiz, Cesar Azpilicueta, and Gary Cahill now operate as ball playing central defenders. Cahill, whose individual mistakes have cost Chelsea points this season is hanging by a thin thread in this squad. With Kurt Zouma injured, and substitute options inadequate, the January transfer window will be spent searching for central defensive recruitments.
What will January bring?
Conte’s idea is exemplified by the amount of work his wing-backs are expected to do. Victor Moses, an unlikely frontrunner in this new position, and Alonso, who by some media reports was not even Chelsea’s first choice transfer target now own this position. Nemanja Matic, and N’Golo Kante both function as box-to-box midfielder. Their singular job, makes it easier for the front three, (in most cases since this reshuffle: Eden Hazard, Diego Costa, and Pedro) to have a bit more freedom than their remaining 8 teammates.
Conte and his team will be in great spirits knowing their hard work on the training ground is paying quick dividends. However, there are pitfalls to such a system. For starters, Chelsea are absent from European football this year, giving them extra time to relax, and train in between domestic games.
The manager’s rigid individual roles often alienate players, and with the likes of Cesc Fabregas, Willian, and Oscar all settling for a starting place on the bench, managing egos is another hurdle Conte will face when the January transfer window opens in a few weeks. The Italian has laid down a very strong foundation with Chelsea so far this season. He has it relatively easier than the rest this year, but that does not mean he will be ill prepared for bigger challenges next year.