Getting To Know Antonio Conte
It appears that it’s time to start paying attention to Chelsea again in the Premier League.
This time last season, as everyone remembers, the Blues were in the midst of a baffling and unexpected slide that saw them dip down toward the relegation zone by the midpoint of the campaign. José Mourinho was sacked, and while Chelsea righted the ship somewhat down the stretch, they were much too far out of contention to be relevant. The only question that remained was whether it would be a one-year aberration or a sign of trouble to come at Stamford Bridge.
We surely don’t have a definitive answer just yet but all early indications point to Chelsea being back on track. After three weeks of match play, the Blues are second in the league tables with nine points on a perfect 3-0-0 record and a plus-five goal differential. Only Manchester City has been more impressive from a numbers standpoint, with identical points and record but a plus-six differential. It’s still very early but only one other club (Manchester United) has won its opening three matches.
As a result, Chelsea is already being viewed as an EPL title challenger once more. The football betting odds at Betfair currently have the Blues at 5.5 to win the league, behind the two clubs from Manchester but ahead of everyone else. And those odds are only going to improve if they keep up their level of play against a tricky field of competitors throughout September.
But it’s how Chelsea has turned things around that’s most interesting. And really, there’s no other way to put it than that Antonio Conte already seems to deserve a tremendous amount of credit. The former Juventus player and manager, who’s also coached the Italian national team of late, signed on to man the resurgence at Stamford Bridge this past summer, and looks to be well suited indeed to Premier League play.
From a philosophical standpoint, Conte is known as a manager who’s not afraid to share his opinions with players or upper management, and who puts a great deal of stock in preparation. The best way to describe him, as was done in Telegraph’s handy write-up of everything you need to know about Conte, is that he takes a no-nonsense approach. He’s known for having fallen out with Juventus ownership even after helping the team to return to glory following match fixing scandals, and he apparently doesn’t hesitate to berate even star players when he deems it necessary. Andrea Pirlo is quoted in the Telegraph piece essentially giving credit to Conte for knowing when to push his buttons with a hard-hitting but accurate critique.
In terms of his outlook on match preparation, Conte is recognised as something of a workaholic, for lack of a better term. Part of the “no nonsense” approach mentioned previously is that he plans in detail for each game, as opposed to relying purely on his own tactics or development to lead to success.
Tactics & Formation
Those tactics, however, are generally known to favour a 3-5-2 formation, which would be a little bit unusual in the Premier League. A thorough article questioning whether 3-5-2 could work for Chelsea described Conte’s Juventus teams in simple but apt terms: it was a cerebral team backed by power, pace, and skill. More specifically it was a squad backed by exceptional talent on the defensive end that could afford to keep just three players back, relying on Pirlo’s distribution and some creative and talented attackers to generate quick offensive pushes.
Many among the Chelsea faithful doubted whether a similar approach would work at Stamford Bridge – particularly after watching Louis van Gaal try and fail to implement something similar with Man Utd. in recent seasons. Perhaps, then, it shouldn’t be surprising that Conte has come out with something markedly different in the early going. The Blues appear to have favoured a 4-2-4 formation for the most part, and clearly it’s gone well.
A 4-2-4 asks a lot of the wingers, but as this is undeniably a position of strength for Chelsea, it appears that Conte has simply adjusted his tactics to take advantage of what he’s got. The formation showed itself off in a recent 3-0 win over Burnley in which Eden Hazard and Willian each scored while doing outstanding work out wide. Running a 4-2-4, the Blues are stable at the back while still being able to spread out opposing defenses, ultimately still using some of their top talents out wide to penetrate and attack the box. Again, it’s asking a lot of the wing players, but thus far they’ve been up to the task.
Time will tell how Conte settles in as manager at Stamford Bridge, given that we’re only in the beginning of September. But at this early stage his hard-nosed approach appears to have struck a cord with a team that’s visibly playing harder than a season ago, and the on-field strategy has been effective.