Clive Ke-Sumbu | Football Editor | Tuesday 19 July 2016 | GMT 12:30 | firstname.lastname@example.org
Last week Monday was the day on which Antonio Conte’s era as Chelsea FC Manager began. Yet after a week at the helm, questions are already being asked as to whether he has the credentials to rejuvenate a demoralised team that finished a mere 10th in the Barclays Premier League last season. With an early pre-season defeat on Saturday against Rapid Vienna, it epitomises the lingering bitterness of last season that still persists and contributed to the worst title defence of the Premier League era to date.
With that in mind, it is clear that Conte has a lot of work to do in order to restore Chelsea to the levels that were enjoyed in their Premier league winning campaign of 2014/15, and most notably restoring the reputation of Chelsea’s most prized asset Eden Hazard. The former PFA and FWA Player of the Year was oozing with class during Chelsea’s Premier League winning campaign, but the manner in which himself and Chelsea declined has left many bemused and wondering whether the appointment of Conte alone is enough to turn Chelsea’s fortunes around.
Many people (myself included) were puzzled by the idea of appointing an individual that possessed similar characteristics to Mourinho (arguably the person responsible for Chelsea’s demise last season), but it is clear that Conte sheds a different insight to his predecessor. An ex-midfielder during his playing days and lauded as one of the most influential players in the history of Juventus for being quick, combative, energetic, and tactically versatile, these characteristics displayed in his management style have been critical to his success.
Conte yields 10 years of managerial experience and has a CV which boasts three consecutive Serie A titles as well as being unbeaten in the league during the 2011/12 season with Juventus. Whilst his experience solely lies in Italy, all of the clubs he took over endured periods of instability and underwhelming performances, which Conte has managed to overturn. This pattern provides further insight to his credentials, especially as Chelsea has gone through a recent period of instability and underwhelming performances themselves.
However, within this energetic individual comes a few flaws, most notably his temper. It was the composed nature of Guus Hiddink that slightly restored serenity during the calamitous period in the latter months of the season. Unsurprisingly, many critics are quick to cite the altercation between Buffon and Conte in the 2013/14 season due to bonuses. Could this be a sign that Chelsea’s star players are likely to have an altercation with him? If so, then this would certainly marginalise many fans like me who crave to see the unity and togetherness of their team. Furthermore, many critics also cite that like Mourinho, Conte has been unable to keep a job for more than 3 years. Thus, this leads us to consider whether Roman Abramovich will be searching for his 11th manager since 2003…by 2019.
Whilst there are many doubters of Conte’s credentials, it is difficult to ignore the performance of Italy during Euro 2016 under Conte. The Italian team was labelled by many as ‘the least talented in half a century’ in comparison to the bountiful amount of talent in previous Italian teams, with Conte himself bemoaning the ‘lack of young talent’. Yet, Conte managed to transform this team deprived of talent into a team full of world beaters. The passion, spirit and unity so deeply craved in many modern teams (more so at Chelsea) was evident to watch. Under the guidance of Conte, Italy conjured up results that bamboozled the whole of Europe, particularly against Spain in which they outplayed the former European Champions as well as being an effective catalyst for the unexpected departures of managers at highly ranked national teams (Vincente Del Bosque, Spanish national team; and Marc Wilmot, Belgian national team).
Despite Italy’s quarterfinal exit on penalties against a nation that has an impeccable record with penalties, it is safe to say that Italy were exceptional throughout the tournament and Jason Statham would be very proud of the Italian Job they did on their opponents. However, much of that has to be down to the tactical master, Conte, and his ability to transform the likes of Emanuele Giaccherini – a Sunderland outcast whose career seemed to be on the verge of collapse – into a world class player, scoring a beautiful goal against Belgium. This is evidence of the miracles that Conte can create when a team buys into his philosophy.
With that being said, Conte is going to need to do a lot of work if he is to manoeuvre Chelsea out of this slippery slope that may preside if Conte isn’t able to inspire Chelsea’s star players like Hazard, Fabregas, Costa and Matic who were all were misfiring last season and have largely singled out as the ones to blame for Chelsea’s dismal season. Can Conte can reinvigorate these players to their absolute best? He certainly thinks so! “Follow me and I can take you to Lionel Messi’s level” is what he adamantly states. This may be arrogance, but it does give you further insight into the motivational speaker that inspired the transformation of the unloved Italian team prior to Euro 2016 to one that was feared by so many in the tournament.
Regardless of what view we have of Conte, anything less than a top four finish will lead to another beheading by Abramovich. With all Chelsea managers (apart from Andre Villas-Boas) wielding a win percentage of 53% and above, the stakes are pretty high for Conte. Moreover, with the most decorated managers in the modern era now working in the Premier League (the likes of Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and Mourinho in that bracket), it is going to be even harder to wrestle for a top four place, let alone the Premier League title. Thus, for that, I respect his decision to take on a job in which many have tried and failed (including Mourinho…twice).
Could this possibly be the start of longevity for Conte with Chelsea that Mourinho failed to achieve? Can Conte replicate the success of Euro 2016 and his time at Juventus with Chelsea? And more importantly is his appointment enough to revitalise Chelsea to the levels that made them such a commanding force in 2014/15? Whether pre-season is enough time for Conte to tailor his team’s dress to a size that best fits them and sow the deep wounds of last season remains to be seen and only time will tell. It is early days, but these questions shall soon be answered with the opening fixtures of the Premier League in exactly 4 weeks against West Ham.