Conte behind Blues' win

Chelsea's Michy Batshuayi slides in to prod the ball past West Brom 'keeper Ben Foster. Used sparingly this season, the Belgian scored what proved to be the winner in the Blues' 1-0 triumph, sealing the Premier League crown.
Chelsea's Michy Batshuayi slides in to prod the ball past West Brom 'keeper Ben Foster. Used sparingly this season, the Belgian scored what proved to be the winner in the Blues' 1-0 triumph, sealing the Premier League crown.PHOTO: REUTERS

Italian stamps his mark on an ailing team with masterstrokes in man management, tactics

LONDON • After an extended, processional run-in that started as a head-down sprint away from the peloton and settled into an imperious push from the front, Chelsea are once again champions of the English Premier League.

Friday night's crowning victory against West Bromwich Albion was the 25th in 30 league matches since Antonio Conte's decisive re-gearing of his team in September, the tactical switches that have coaxed such a thrilling run from this team of unheralded squad players, most notably Victor Moses, who was dredged out of the reserve team to become a key part of the title surge.

It is now 14 years since owner Roman Abramovich bought over the west London club. Five titles and a Champions League win have now sealed Chelsea's place as the dominant English club of this period.

There have been 11 changes of manager during that run of Chelsea trophies, with the implication always that the structures and hierarchy are what really keep this club rolling on.

In Antonio Conte, however, the Blues have something different - a manager who inherited a messy, enervated squad reeling from the worst title defence in 25 years and threw a lightning bolt through pretty much the same group of players to create a fresh champion team.

"He got hold of the club, got hold of the team," said John Hollins, who made almost 600 appearances for Chelsea from 1963 to 1975 and also had a stint as manager in the 1980s.

"It's a marvellous achievement, especially to come in and do it in your first season in charge."

From his very first session with his players - joining the club after guiding the Italian national team to the Euro 2016 quarter-finals - Conte set the tone.

He does not observe on the sidelines, he works in the thick of it, ensuring that players are always in the precise position: Starting and stopping play, interrupting moves and shouting instructions.

The initial training sessions may have seemed overly meticulous, tedious and repetitive at times, yet when the players walk out into matches armed with the minutest of details, it is as if they have already seen and played the game. Next to nothing is left to chance.

There has been more running and gym work than in the past to ensure that the team are much fitter. They have done high-intensity fitness drills: sprinting for 20 seconds, then 15 seconds, then 10 seconds over shorter and shorter distances. All repeated between ten and 20 times, with up to four sessions a day in pre-season.

"I want to play with high intensity, to win the ball back very soon after we lose it, to attack with the right balance," Conte said. He got what he wanted.

WINNING START

He got hold of the club, got hold of the team. It's a marvellous achievement, especially to come in and do it in your first season in charge.

JOHN HOLLINS, former Chelsea player and manager, evaluates Conte's league-winning feat.

If the Italian had a to-do list when he took over, returning an off-form Eden Hazard to his destructive best was top of it. The Belgian took time to be convinced by Conte's methods, but later revelled in a position with fewer defensive responsibilities.

"What I know is that I have fun on the field," Hazard said. "A coach puts his scheme in place but he does not say, 'Here, you have to do this or that.' I'm free.

"Where he helped me a lot, it's in my positioning. When I attack, I am closer to the goal. Before, I was more often on the flank and I found myself facing two or three opponents. The team is running well and it is no coincidence. With Conte, we worked a lot."

The 47-year-old can take credit too, for not making John Terry's dropping a divisive issue. The captain strained ankle ligaments in September and by the time he was fit, the team were in the middle of their 13-match winning run in the league.

There was mutual admiration between the pair and Terry accepted that the manager could not change a winning team. Instead, he offered advice during training and in the dressing room, and travelled to games even when injured.

No one has escaped censure when needed, and Conte can be a hothead when players - and his coaching staff - do not deliver what he wants.

During the crucial Arsenal loss in September, he was seen shoving his assistant coach Angelo Alessio down the touchline to relay a message to the team.

"In such moments I am capable of killing anybody," he said after the game. "All manners go out of the window in the heat of the moment. The only thing that matters is winning."

A couple of days before Christmas, Conte presented gifts to everyone who works at the training ground, from those in the kitchen through to administrative staff. For each he wrote an individual message and a quotation from the military commander, Hannibal, famous for leading his elephants over the Alps.

It read: "We will either find a way or we will make one." And they have.

THE GUARDIAN, THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 14, 2017, with the headline 'Conte behind Blues' win'. Print Edition | Subscribe