As Antonio Conte celebrates his first Premier League title, Adam Summerton looks at what makes the Chelsea manager so special.
Whoever doubted that Antonio Conte had a plan for Michy Batshuayi……? The Chelsea coach can seemingly do no wrong and fully deserves all the praise coming his way after winning the Premier League title in his first season in English football. Though to many who’ve followed Conte’s career, this is no big surprise. He has been, in my opinion, the best in the world for several years now. Not only is he a top coach, he’s also an exceptionally good manager – in that respect Conte is close to the complete package.
To win four successive league titles in two different countries is special – indeed his league record in that time reads – P-150 W-111 D-27 L-12. Even if he had been appointed the head coach of a team of serial winners this record would be impressive, but at both Juventus and Chelsea, Conte walked in to testing situations.
Depending on which account you read, it ranged from stories of disharmony to all out civil war at Stamford Bridge last season – a campaign which saw an admittedly talented squad finish 10th, thirty-one points behind title-winners, Leicester City. Prior to Conte’s arrival at Juventus, the Bianconeri had finished the 2010/11 campaign in 7th place in Serie A, twenty-four points behind champions AC Milan. His first season at Juventus also coincided with a move to a brand-new stadium, something we’re often told can be problematic. Yet Conte was like a breath of fresh-air – and, making the most of a season outside of Europe, (sound familiar?) led an unbeaten Juventus to their first Scudetto since the Calciopoli scandal. He would go on to win three league titles in a row and firmly re-establish Juventus as the dominant force in Italian football. Absolutely key to this was his creation of a winning mentality and togetherness that still exists at Juventus, and has arguably been enhanced further still by Max Allegri.
What Conte does so well is give players confidence through certainty and a clear identity. They all know the system, and they are all left in no doubt as to their roles within that framework. You don’t need to be a fly on the wall at Cobham to see this, it’s clearly evident just from watching any of his teams play – they are very well-coached and well-prepared. I can offer no better recent example of the effect all this can have on an individual than David Luiz. Under Antonio Conte, he has gone from a figure of fun to a very serious defender, one of the best around, and that’s no coincidence.
Conte’s coaching ability was clearly evident long before he arrived in West London, but perhaps less spoken about was his qualities as a manager of people, something he’s also proved very adept at. I thought he handled the Diego Costa China situation very well, not allowing it to destabilise the side mid-season – he’s also reinvigorated and united a dressing room without making anything like wholesale changes. Even his man-management of John Terry has proved beneficial – Conte was clever enough to spot the importance of having someone of such authority and experience about the place. Even though Terry’s playing time has been very limited, I’ve always got the feeling he feels involved and valued by Conte, as Friday night’s celebrations showed.
Conte’s man-management hasn’t just been restricted to the playing staff though – and he knows the little touches can make all difference. A couple of days before Christmas, everyone at Cobham, from canteen workers to administrative staff, was given a present by Conte, all with a personalised note. At the end of each note, he had jotted down a quote from the military commander Hannibal, famous for leading his elephants over The Alps. ‘We will either find a way,’ the line read, ‘or we will make one.’
Having carved out a path to the Premier League title so soon, Conte’s next big frontier is the Champions League. It remains, for me, the big question mark over his potential greatness as a coach. Eliminated at the group stage in his final season with Juventus, he’d managed a quarter-final appearance the year before. Had he stayed with the Bianconeri I happen to think he’d have gone on to lead them much further in that competition, but now it’s with Chelsea that he will meet this challenge with the same unmistakable verve and enthusiasm that has captured hearts and minds so quickly at Stamford Bridge.