The beginning of the Premier League season began with the spotlight firmly on Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola, the two bastions of world football. It was almost taken for granted that the two Manchester clubs would dominate English football for the considerable future. Chelsea were to be nothing but a side show, almost a supporting act, aiming to squeeze their way back into European football. Eleven games into the season and the spotlights appear to be turning away and two new lead actors have taken the stage in Jurgen Klopp and Antonio Conte.
What awaited Conte on his arrival at Chelsea was almost unheard of for a top club. A team that had been champions the year before had sunk to finish 10th in the league. Jose Mourinho, the Emperor of Chelsea, seemed to have gone mad, blaming players and coaches of deceit. There was a player mutiny and fans were frustrated. A lack of investment in the squad and poor transfers resulted in a lack of depth and older players being overworked. It seemed that Roman Abramovich’s empire, on which he has spent over a £1billion, was over.
But if Mourinho was Chelsea’s Julius Caesar, then Conte has proven to be Brutus. He has been able to quickly make the changes needed to give him a first team capable of fighting for the title. Kante has provided the engine that both Matic and Fabregas lack, whereas the signing of Marcos Alonso has finally allowed Cesar Azpilicueta to return to his natural right side of defence. Conte has also been able to sell his ‘vision’ to key players at the club such as Costa and Hazard, who seem to be as motivated as ever to perform not just for themselves but for the club. He has also showed the adaptability and tactical nous that we expect of Italian coaches. Recognising the failure of his previous system, the change to a 3-4-3 formation was seen to be a risky one. It has led to 5 straight wins, scoring 16 and conceding none. Conte claims to have another formation up his sleeve if he thinks teams work out how to play against the current set-up.
Conte’s passion is infectious. He speaks of how, like a tailor, a manager must tinker his team. Given how many suits he must destroy over a course of a season on the touchline, one can imagine he spends a lot of time with his tailor. Like a General he commands his team throughout the match, barking instructions, and he celebrates every goal like the most ardent fan would, to the annoyance of the opposition team. Off the pitch he shows a grace that Chelsea managers of late have lacked. His interviews are often quiet with his coarse throat unable to speak louder, something he cures with special sweets imported from Italy.
One could easily get carried away with this new Chelsea. We are after all only eleven games in and like ancient Roman pottery, whilst it looks beautiful on the outside there are clear cracks. The substitute bench seems redundant; none of Terry, Ivanovic, Fabregas, Oscar, Batshuayi, Mikel, Loftus-Cheek or Aina seem to fit the system. Chelsea’s ‘effective’ bench only includes Willian, Chalobah and Begovic (who’s a goalkeeper). This was highlighted in their loss to West Ham in the EFL Cup when some of the bench were given a chance to shine. There is also the over-reliance on Costa, Hazard and Kante. Any injuries to them and then you have a major problem.
Whatever happened last season and however bumpy the road ahead, Conte appears to be rebuilding the Footballing Empire that Roman Abramovich craves. With the lights shining on him, the game’s leading up to Christmas will determine how successful he has been. Let’s hope for Chelsea’s and his own sake that his future is brighter than Brutus.
By Nima Amin