During the summer, Antonio Conte gave us a glimpse of what to expect on the Stamford Bridge touchline during the forthcoming Premier League season. The 46-year-old Italian, a tenacious ballplayer in his playing days at the heart of the Juventus midfield – winning the Champions League once and the Serie A title five times – started his managerial career with Italian outfit, Bari, where he had an indifferent period before making the move to Siena, where he forged a reputation which grabbed the attention of former club, Juve. The rest – as they say – ‘is history’. After three consecutive Serie A titles – including a whole league season unbeaten (2010/11) in his first year in charge – Conte had already established himself as one of the best managers in Europe.
The shrewd Italian has often been compared to the likes of Guardiola and Mourinho, not least for his attention to detail and tactical nous. A record breaking coach at the relatively young age of 46 and someone who has a proven track record of delivering trophies – essential qualities for the high-pressure environment of Stamford Bridge and the Premier League. Conte was a a no-brainer for Chelsea.
The Italian is Chelsea’s 12th manager in 13 years which points to two things: either bad recruitment or ridiculous over-expectations. Or both. Roman Abramovich will also have to deal with the reality of his club not being in the Champions League this season for the first time since he bought the club. That will be hard to take, and embarrassing, for the Russian billionaire who will expect an immediate improvement under Conte. If not, he will be out.
Antonio Conte has a job on his hands refreshing and rebuilding Chelsea (GETTY IMAGES)
So, what changes, if any, can we expect Conte to bring to The Bridge?
1. The Tactics
Conte has a habit of deploying defensive tactics and has earned a reputation for creating an us-against-them mentality with his players (remind you of anyone?). It may not have worked for ‘The Special One’ towards the end of his tenure at Stamford Bridge, but it has served Conte well in his career thus far, just as it did with the Portuguese tactician for many years. 3-5-2 certainly isn’t the most popular formation in England, well…anywhere to tell the truth, but Conte is a huge fan and he certainly knows how to implement it – as was evident for anyone who observed the Italians, labelled pre-tournament as the ‘worst Italian side ever’, out-manoeuvre and outwit the Spanish in the Stade de France and come close to repeating that feat against the World Champions in the quarter-finals of Euro 2016. Will the 3-5-2 previously deployed at Juve and the Italian national team will be as successful for the Blues? Only time will tell, but there are a few players in the squad who could benefit hugely from that very approach, more on that later.
One thing Chelsea fans will need to get used to is the fact that Conte is not obsessed with possession of the football. Far from it. If Guardiola and Manchester City are a perfect match in terms of style and methods then so are Conte and Chelsea. His Italian team had (on average) less possession at Euro 2016 than 14/24 other teams at the competition – behind the likes of Austria, Switzerland, Turkey and Hungary! That is absolutely no coincidence.
Italian football expert Augusto de Bartolo, when asked about Conte’s style:
“His style is not based on possession like a Pep Guardiola team – it is based on direct football, to the wings or to the strikers.
“Conte uses an aggressive approach, trying to win the ball back as soon as the team can, making the space near the ball short and busy.”
This style of play, playing without the majority of possession, isn’t a completely new concept for these Chelsea players having played under Mourinho. In fact, it was the very style of play that led Mourinho to the upper echelons of management in the first instance. The stats would suggest that Conte, adopting a similar style, may also enjoy great success in the Premier League.
In the 2012/13 Premier League season, 32 games were won by teams having less than 40% possession in a match. In the 13/14 season, that figure rose to 42 games. In 14/15, that figure rose again to 46 games. And in last season’s Premier League, which was won by Leicester City (who averaged just 40% – courtesy of OPTA), the figure rose once again, to 52 games. Possession is not what it used to be. This is not only true for the Premier League either. We have seen it at international level where Spain’s tika-taka domination of 2004-2012 is a distant memory and also in La Liga, where Diego Simeone’s (who was also linked with the Chelsea job) Athletico Madrid consistently challenging Real and Barca.
Even Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger is having his doubts! However, despite these words, below, near the end of last season, he is unlikely to compromise his footballing philosophy.
“Possession is not rewarded like it was before.
“I keep my philosophy, but I’m also an observer and I go through the stats of every game at the moment. I am trying to understand; is it something new, is something happening that was not going on before?”
If footballing methods and styles are indeed changing, as the statistics suggest, are we going to see United, under the defensive Mourinho, and Chelsea, under Conte, back in race for the title? Are we going to see Arsenal continue to struggle and City, under new coach Guardiola, stuttering and struggling to break teams down? Some would, of course, argue that tactics and formations don’t win you games; players do.
2. The players
£27M Juan Cuadrado, after a frustrating spell since joining from Fiorentina, had a successful spell on loan at Juventus last season, and he could be one of those players to be given a new lease of life at The Bridge under Conte. The winger, who has previously played at right wing-back for Fiorentina and Juventus in a 3-5-2, could be the answer to fill that void in Conte’s line-up. It is difficult to see who else could naturally fill that gap in the current Chelsea squad. Branislav Ivanovic, a centre-half by trade who has been converted to a right-back in recent seasons, could play there but lacks the creativity and pace to influence the game as a wing-back and would be more suited, and probably required, to fill one of the three center-half positions. There are rumours of an agreement with Lazio over 29-year-old Antonio Candreva, who filled the right wing-back slot for Italy at the Euros. His arrival in London could deny Cuadrado his chance to shine in the blue jersey. It has also been widely reported that Juventus remain interested in signing the Columbian international on a permanent transfer and that may suit Chelsea, who would want to recoup a large slice of the hefty transfer fee they paid for him, and for Cuadrado himself, who may feel his game is more suited to Serie A. Either way, he seems unlikely to find himself on the periphery of the Chelsea squad like he was under Mourinho.
Last season’s oft-maligned Cesc Fabregas is another player who could land himself a more prominent role within Conte’s set-up. The Spanish midfielder has struggled to adapt to the defensive duties which are an integral part of a two-man midfield in a 4-2-3-1 formation and would likely be more suited to a more attacking role within a 3-5-2 formation. Having two midfielders beside him, possibly Matic and Mikel/Willian would give the gifted playmaker, who had a fantastic first season at The Bridge, more freedom to express himself and dictate the play. Guus Hiddink, who took the helm after Mourinho’s exit last season, pinpointed “the Fabregas issue” as one of his immediate priorities after taking the job on an interim basis:
“It is important that he is surrounded by players who can help him out in his defensive work so he can focus on creating things.
“He has that at Chelsea now and when he is in a more advanced position, he doesn’t have to do that much defensive work and can concentrate a bit more on his speciality.”
Cesc Fabregas will be hoping for a more advanced role in Conte’s new Chelsea team (GETTY IMAGES)
It is fair to say that Conte shares that view. His reported interest in Kante (Leicester) and Nainggolan (Roma) suggests that he wants to beef up the midfield to allow his more technically gifted players freedom to do their stuff. During Italy’s Euro 2016 campaign, Conte used Emanuele Giaccherini (yes, the Sunderland flop), in front of anchormen Daniele De Rossi and Daniel Parolo, and even he looked menacing – a similar role for Fabregas would surely be one which he would thrive in.
Another player who could benefit from the switch to 3-5-2, is Chelsea’s captain, John Terry. For large parts of last season, the former England international’s days at Chelsea look numbered and there were even rumours of a huge pay day move to China to join former teammate, Ramires. After strong criticism from large parts of the Chelsea support over the decision not to award him a new contract, Mr Abramovich handed Terry a new one-year take it or leave it deal. The 36-year-old’s loyalty was tested with the cut price contract offer, but duly accepted the chance to stay at ‘his’ club. His form has been closely scrutinised by the English media, who are convinced he is over the hill and no longer has the pace to play at the top level. It remains to be seen whether Conte sees him as a major part of his plans or merely an experienced character to have in the dressing room.
There is no doubt that Terry has lost some of the pace he once had, but playing as part of a three man defence, where there would be plenty cover and some pace either side of him, may very well see him extend his career at the top even longer than he himself expected. Conte’s pursuits of John Stones at Everton and Juventus’ Leonardo Bonucci, have yet to bear any fruit and if he fails to land one, or both, there is a strong chance that the Chelsea captain will play a part in this coming campaign. Gary Cahill is the only other established center-half at his disposal and Kurt Zouma is still recovering from that horrible cruciate knee ligament injury sustained in last season’s 1-1 draw with Man United.
3. The shadow of ‘The Special One’
Do we now have the most interesting line-up of managers we have ever had in the Premier League? Possibly. Guardiola, Mourinho, Conte, Klopp and eh….Wenger – the forthcoming season will surely keep the media and the fans entertained off the pitch. Hopefully the football on it will be just as entertaining.
Chelsea’s appointment of Conte comes at a time where the team is in need of new life and new ideas. Conte will not have to endure the Mourinho shadow which has almost suffocated the club and overshadowed every manager they have had over the past 8 years. When ‘The Special One’ left The Bridge the first time in 2007, there was always a feeling around Cobham that he may one day return. In 2013, he did. A third spell in charge at The Bridge is simply not going to happen, not least because of his own appointment at Old Trafford. Chelsea now have the opportunity to start a fresh.
However, the real question for Chelsea is – can Conte repeat his success at Juve? If he can, then another period with plenty of trophies lies ahead for the Blues. If not, look out Antonio – the Russian owner won’t be far away.