Football: Flawed side is arguably worst of Chelsea's five EPL champion teams

Chelsea players celebrating after winning their match against West Bromwich Albion and securing the Premiership title on May 12.
Chelsea players celebrating after winning their match against West Bromwich Albion and securing the Premiership title on May 12. PHOTO: EPA

Yet it only accentuates manager's acumen in making diamonds out of an underachieving bunch

If anything, Antonio Conte was guilty of understatement. A day before Chelsea were crowned champions in scenes of unadulterated joy, he reflected on his job.

"It wasn't easy," he said. "We faced a lot of problems."

It is those problems, that context, which render his achievement all the bigger.

Chelsea finished 10th just 12 months ago. They were eighth after suffering back-to-back defeats in September.

Chelsea had crashed and burned. Conte's title winners are the footballing equivalent of a phoenix from the flames, a team revived by a tactical change and a catalytic manager.

It makes his a unique feat. Chelsea's four previous titles were scarcely surprising. Jose Mourinho boasted Europe's biggest transfer budget when he won in 2004-05 and 2005-06. His 2014-15 team had come close the year before.

Carlo Ancelotti inherited a group who were Champions League finalists a year before his 2009 appointment and, like Mourinho and Conte, flourished immediately.

Mourinho altered a mentality, but Conte has been the most transformational manager since him: not simply because he is the first to truly consign the Portuguese's side to the past, and not just because of the switch in system that Conte said changed Chelsea's season.

His may be the Londoners' greatest managerial accomplishment in the Premier League.

Previous Blues sides were record breakers. Ancelotti's team blazed a trail by scoring 103 times. Mourinho's first winners conceded a mere 15 goals and accumulated 95 points.

This Chelsea side may not be as good as those, but that highlights Conte's importance.

Either in historical comparisons, or in contemporary assessments, Chelsea do not possess huge advantages in either talent or resources.

In hypothetical match-ups, they may beat Mourinho's class of 2014-15, but probably not his earlier two title-winning sides, who were arguably the equals of anyone in Europe at the time. They might also be outgunned by Ancelotti's free-scoring outfit.

But it is worth asking how many top-six sides would Marcos Alonso, Victor Moses or David Luiz have got into nine months ago. Not many. But instead, overlooked or mocked footballers have played to, or even above, their potential.

Under Conte, they have been key components of the most consistent, most relentless, most well-drilled team in England.

His input was apparent as the title-winning goal came from Michy Batshuayi, brought on as the talismanic Eden Hazard was taken off; few other coaches would have made that substitution.

There is already a case for anointing the Italian second only to Mourinho among the 12 managers of the Roman Abramovich era.

Roberto di Matteo has a special, if strange, place in Chelsea history as the caretaker who won the Champions League, while the scale of Mourinho's achievements mean that "Judas is still No. 1", as the Portuguese said to Blues supporters who taunted him.

The next test for Conte is to emulate Ancelotti by winning the double. After that comes the bigger examination: Can he join Mourinho in retaining the title?

Once again, his task seems tougher than his predecessor's.

Unlike 12 years ago, Chelsea are not positioned to dominate England, let alone Europe. Their title was secured by a group of 13 - the 11 regular starters, plus Willian and Cesc Fabregas - and they face disruption with the probable departure of Diego Costa. Hazard, Willian and Fabregas could also go.

Normally it is failing teams who require spending sprees. Conte's Chelsea are an exception. With the Champions League next season, they require a much bigger squad.

They won the league while making a £25 million (S$45 million) transfer-market profit. With Conte's tactical brilliance and driven nature, they have upset the odds. They are unlike Chelsea's earlier Premier League champions.

It is a sign of Conte's alchemy, but repeating it will not be easy, either.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 14, 2017, with the headline 'Flawed side is arguably worst of their five champs'. Print Edition | Subscribe