Heart Of Football

Revitalising a team that Jose Mourinho disparaged

Chelsea players celebrating their victory over West Bromwich Albion on May 12. PHOTO: AFP

In a reflective moment before Chelsea went out to clinch the English Premier League title on Friday night, Antonio Conte had confided to West Bromwich Albion's manager Tony Pulis how the decision was forced on him to make Chelsea great again.

"He recognised he had to change it early in the season, or else they would have changed him," said Pulis.

Win or be fired. Rotation can be brutal, costly, and disruptive. Yet replacing Jose Mourinho with Conte looks inspired now that the trophy is back at Stamford Bridge - and the FA Cup might well join it in two weeks' time.

It has become a weekly ritual in England (and therefore around the world where the EPL is so closely followed) to compare and contrast Mourinho's Chelsea to Conte's Chelsea.

If we condense that to the way that Mourinho lost the respect of the team, and Conte won it, we will not be far from putting a finger on the reason for the turnaround.

And if we boil that down to just one player, Diego Costa, the contrast between last season and this is almost as stark as the near-naked figure that Costa cut in Friday's celebrations.

If we condense that to the way that Mourinho lost the respect of the team, and Conte won it, we will not be far from putting a finger on the reason for the turnaround.

Surly, rebellious, downright dirty towards the end of the Mourinho period. Energetic, channelled, respectful, and even coaxed to stay at the Bridge despite the millions that China threw at his feet to try to lure Costa six months ago.

I go with Costa for a reason. For it was him, the Brazilian who sold his birthright to play for Spain, whose 20 goals this season spearheaded the Premier League race - 20 goals in 26 league games as opposed to 12 in the whole of last season.

Conte confronted, cajoled, and persuaded change on the part of his central striker. Of course, the purchase of N'Golo Kante from Leicester was pivotal because Kante energised Chelsea to this year's title just as he had at Leicester last year.

And of course, Eden Hazard adorned Chelsea like no other artist. Hazard was back to being a winner, a charmer in football boots, after appearing such a sullen, lost force last year.

Mourinho's parting shot was to accuse Chelsea of betraying his genius as a manager. Conte's first words after winning at West Brom on a damp Friday night was to pin the achievement on those same players.

Yet, he had shown the way, instilled into players the attitude, just as he did in taking Juventus - "his" club - from seventh in Serie A to first in his first three seasons managing the club for whom he played as a tireless midfielder for 13 years.

England was an altogether different challenge. A new language, new habits, a different and dispirited set of players in a foreign culture.

Conte did as Conte does by adapting a 3-4-3 formation. Italian tactics, presumed the critics.

Well, as Italian as the Brazilian and the Englishman - David Luiz and Gary Cahill respectively - at the heart of his defence? As Italian as Costa, Hazard, Kante, Cesc Fabregas, Pedro Rodriguez?

What the coach told them was that the system suited their characteristics. And that included converting Victor Moses, a discarded winger under Mourinho, into an industrious, super-energised, astonishingly responsible wing-back.

What Moses did, what the entire cadre of players did, was buy into this spirit. Togetherness is the catchphrase of the Chelsea training camp, and if ever a coach showed by his own energy how much he was in this with them, it has been Conte.

His touchline antics, living the joy and sinking with the despair, reflected every moment of his season. Some, I know, find the coach cavorting around on the sideline to be childish at best, demonic at worst.

Child-like is a better description. Conte isn't showing off or attempting to steal the limelight. He cannot hide the enthusiasm that casts him as a six-year-old in the body of a 47-year-old.

When the final whistle blew at the Hawthorns, Chelsea buried their leader. Conte emerged from the heap of players, went over to the travelling Chelsea supporters, and was then inevitably grabbed by his players and tossed into the air like a rag doll.

Typical of his calls this season was his last throw of the dice against West Brom. Chelsea had toiled without breaking down their opponents' stubborn defensive door.

So the coach played his wild card. He took off Hazard and Pedro and put on Michy Batshuayi and Willian. "I felt we needed energy," Conte explained.

Fair enough, Willian was regularly used in that role. But Batshuayi? The young Belgian of Congolese descent had barely been used all season long. His 18 appearances, all from the bench, seldom lasted more than a handful of minutes, and he last came on as a substitute seven games ago.

Conte's intuition proved right when Batshuayi stretched to poke in the only goal from Cesar Azpilicueta's low cross.

The celebrations began. After the game, they doused Conte with the contents of the ice bucket. Then Costa emptied a champagne magnum right over the head and suit of the manager who had changed their lives this season.

Even that was not enough, as led by Costa, three Chelsea players burst into the press room and manhandled their coach out of the door. They wanted their man back in the dressing room to be a part of the celebrations he made possible.

Back in Italy, in their home in Milan, his wife Elisabetta and his nine-year-old daughter Vittoria will have watched knowing that there is no going back now. Conte and Chelsea have work to do, the Champions League is the new horizon.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 14, 2017, with the headline 'Revitalising a team that Mourinho disparaged'. Subscribe