While the arrival of Pep Guardiola and the return of Jose Mourinho had grabbed all the headlines initially, the league is now standing up and taking notice of this Italian who is proving why he was so highly revered back in his home.
“Lads, it’s time we stopped being shit.” - The concise and not-so-subtle message that Antonio Conte gave to the Juventus team on his first day in charge in Turin. Conte had inherited a Juventus squad which had finished seventh in consecutive seasons. Conte’s message reached the players and The Old Lady went on to win the league title without facing a single defeat in 38 games.
His half-time speech in the dressing room at the Emirates, where Chelsea
At the epicenter of this transformation has been a change in the formation. The 3-4-3 was like a switch that has reactivated some sleeping giants, evolved some Anakin Skywalkers into Darth Vaders, and released a footballer from the grips of a ‘10-year-old on PlayStation’.
Many had predicted this even before Conte had joined the Chelsea squad for the first day of training – the three-man
Conte is not a stickler for
However, in the second half against Arsenal, Conte switched to a 3-5-2 formation, bringing on Marcos Alonso for Fabregas, which is the last time we have seen the Spaniard feature in a Chelsea blue this season, and there was no looking back.
In their next game against Hull City, Conte started with the 3-4-3 formation for the first time. Fabregas and Branislav Ivanovic were replaced by Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso, and Chelsea were all set to roll. Since that change, Chelsea
Hazard liberated; Pedro familiarized
Hazard looked in decent form in the preseason, but that might have been mostly to impress new buyers rather than his new manager. The Belgian international has been far from his best last season, scoring just 6 goals in 43 appearances in all competitions. He had initially come under some criticism from Mourinho for his lack of defensive contribution, and it seemed like Hazard had overcompensated for that.
However, under Conte, Hazard is seemingly back to his best, or close to that at least. With
It is not only Hazard, though. The three-man attack at the top means Pedro is playing in a role he has played for most of his career at Barcelona – that's the reason why we are seeing the best of the Spaniard. He has already racked up three goals and five assists in just seven starts in the league. He provides tremendous movement behind the opponent’s
Reinvention of Moses and Azpilicueta
Not long back, Victor Moses was a forgotten man. Unfruitful loan spells at Liverpool, Stoke City, and West Ham United signaled he might be approaching the end of his career at Stamford Bridge. He had failed to persuade Mourinho of his worth in the squad. In fact, it was Chelsea's failure to sign Kalidou Koulibaly from Napoli in the summer, that has led to Moses being able to revive his career with Chelsea.
After Conte failed to sign the Napoli defender, Conte has had to use Cesar Azpilicueta in that role – which in turn meant that a place on the right wing-back was open for Moses to exploit. All of a sudden, the former Wigan star has been handed a decisive role in the team, and he is making the most of it.
Against Hull City, Moses started a Premier League game for Chelsea for the first time since May 2013 - a total of 1,239 days – and he looked equally comfortable while going forward or defending. In fact, he has looked natural in his role as the wing-back. With him and Alonso providing the width in attack, Hazard and Pedro can afford to stay narrow and support Costa more closely – at times, Chelsea
Along with reinventing Moses as a wingback, Conte has also successfully turned Cesar Azpilicueta into a right center-back. The Spaniard has played both as a left back and as a right back for the blues, but with John Terry on the wane, Ivanovic too undisciplined, and Kurt Zouma struggling with his fitness, Conte has figured out a new role of Azpilicueta. The 27-year-old's pace and positional sense complement the ball-playing ability of Luiz, and Cahill’s aerial strength. Azpilicueta’s presence on the right side of the pitch has also provided Moses with a lot of cover down the right wing.
In Chelsea’s last four matches, they have come up against Southampton’s 4-3-1-2, Everton’s 3-4-3, Middlesbrough’s 4-1-4-1, and Tottenham’s high pressing 4-2-3-1 – four different systems in terms of wide positions, and yet Chelsea always seem to have an advantage down the flanks.
Getting the best out of Luiz and Matic
David Luiz was a panic-buy, and there are no two ways about it. The mercurial Brazilian continues to divide opinion despite being one of the most expensive defenders in the game’s history. He is capable of producing both unimaginable brilliance and traumatizing moments of madness at the back – but for now, the latter seems to be under control. Playing in a three-man
“I see David Luiz’s qualities in the middle, between [those of] Bonucci and Barzagli. He has good technique and good personality, like Bonucci, and likes to play football. Also, I find a good potential physically, like Barzagli’s,” Conte had said about Luiz. It is high praise indeed from a man who had built one of the best defenses in Europe at Juventus.
Another player who has received a new lease of life under Conte is Nemanja Matic. The midfielder was one of the most influential players during Chelsea’s title-winning campaign but faded away last season. In fact, Matic’s dip in form, alongside Hazard, is one of the biggest reasons why Chelsea had struggled, given the huge role he played in that team. With Fabregas failing to contribute defensively, Matic was often left at sea. But with Kante’s arrival this summer, Matic can play a more dynamic role. He can move a bit up the pitch and disrupt opponent’s play. Kante’s energy and Matic’s sturdiness is working well for Conte at the moment.
Soldering a disjointed dressing room
While the tactical change has grabbed most of the spotlight, perhaps Conte’s most important work came off the field. Mourinho had left a dressing room which was low on confidence, lacked the motivation of a team competing at the top, and with little or no evidence of the existence of team spirit. Conte has turned that dressing room, which was falling apart, into a cohesive unit. It almost seems like a family now.
The Italian has this ability to reach out to players. Being a devoted family man himself, Conte cherishes those
He analysis every minute data that is provided to him by the fitness and medical staff, and the video
He has won over the players, he has won over the fans, and now is leading the charge for Chelsea to the top of the Premier League. With Mourinho and Pep Guardiola’s arrival, a lot of the initial spotlight were on the duo, while the charismatic Jurgen Klopp took away the rest. But now, the league is standing up and taking notice of this Italian who is proving why he was so highly revered back in his home.
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