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The Godfather ensures all know who's the boss

Chelsea manager Antonio Conte showing his displeasure during the 0-2 loss to Rapid at the new Allianz Stadion. He is known to send things flying through the air when angered.
Chelsea manager Antonio Conte showing his displeasure during the 0-2 loss to Rapid at the new Allianz Stadion. He is known to send things flying through the air when angered.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

LONDON • Towards the end of Antonio Conte's hour-long introduction at Stamford Bridge last week, the Italian author of a book about the new Chelsea manager wondered whether the players - including new £32 million (S$56.9 million) signing N'Golo Kante - were prepared for the "whirlwind" coming their way.

Kante might find his new boss is a rather different prospect to his previous manager, Claudio Ranieri.

Conte had come across as a reasonable and amiable man in his introduction to the media, but when he retired to a more private setting, the new Chelsea manager bared his teeth.

Metodo Conte (Conte's method), said the author Alessandro Alciato, was more stick than carrot and his subject was quite happy to go along with that description.

IT'S A TWO-WAY STREET

I like to give education and respect always, because this was taught to me by my family. Also I demand education and respect. And if I don't have this, you are asking for trouble.

ANTONIO CONTE , Chelsea's new manager, on his relationship with players.

"I like to give education and respect always, because this was taught to me by my family," he said.

"Also I demand education and respect. And if I don't have this, you are asking for trouble. I love to be with my players, to speak with them, to help them to understand my philosophy, my methods and my thoughts. Hopefully, when the players understand this, we have a fantastic relationship."

There is the rub - and the risk. Conte talks about turning a small flame at Chelsea into an inferno, but his own combustibility could determine whether or not that ambition comes to pass.

He has never managed outside Italy, where players bought into his methods at Juventus and for the national team.

At the Bianconeri, the players called the dressing room Cape Canaveral because of the objects that went flying through the air during a Conte team talk.

Take-off could happen at any time, as the manager himself acknowledged on Thursday with a slightly sheepish smile.

"When you are a coach and when there is the (half-time) break during the game and you are winning but you realise there is danger, it is important to keep the tension very high," he said.

He retained the respect of Gianluigi Buffon, even though he once tore strips off his great goalkeeper captain in front of the other Juventus players when the player asked about a bonus for winning the 2013-14 Scudetto.

Reminded last Thursday that Leonardo Bonucci, another faithful lieutenant from their days together at Juventus and with Italy, called him The Godfather - on the grounds that it is best to listen to what Conte says and not answer back - the 46-year-old smiled.

"We won a lot and then we had a fantastic experience with the national team. He knows me very, very well."

Comparisons between Conte's first season at Juventus and the one coming up at Chelsea are difficult to avoid when it comes to trying to map out how his time at the Blues will unfold.

Juventus had finished seventh two seasons in a row before he took over and he went on to win the first of a hat-trick of titles. AC Milan had better players but could not match the tactical awareness, work ethic and unity of Conte's team.

As he built on that success, his team became more expansive without losing their solid core.

And the way in which Conte deals with players who have developed a reputation for petulance, such as Eden Hazard and Diego Costa, will help to define their season.

In double training sessions at Chelsea last week, he believes he is already making progress with Hazard, whose slump in form last season helped to propel Jose Mourinho through the exit door.

Conte believes the Belgian can again aspire to be up there with the very best in the world.

"We have fantastic players who have great talent, but in this moment, the world doesn't think they are the same level as Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, Neymar, Cristiano Ronaldo or Paul Pogba," he said.

"In our squad, there are players who, with work, can improve a lot and reach this level. I'm sure about this."

Behind Conte's bulging eyes and touch-line histrionics, there is genuine substance and a brilliant footballing brain. Expect more fur to fly down Fulham Road as he goes to work.

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 18, 2016, with the headline 'The Godfather ensures all know who's the boss'. Print Edition | Subscribe