Someone compared Antonio Conte this week to a trullo, the Spartan dry-stone hut with a conical roof built for agricultural labourers which is unique to the Chelsea manager’s native Puglia, on the heel of the Italian peninsula. The construction’s functionality and extreme flexibility sums up the man who exudes less razzle-dazzle than Pep Guardiola, Mauricio Pochettino and Jose Mourinho, and features far less than them in the Premier League conversation, yet is on the brink of outclassing all three.
The other members of that elite young managerial quartet have fascinated more than the Italian because of their complexity, their poetry and perhaps also their photogenicity. Conte, with his gradually improving English and puritanical work ethic, is not so beguiling, though the clinical 3-0 win at Everton on Sunday demonstrates that he will have the last word this season. On paper, it was Chelsea’s last major Premier League challenge.
Conte has demonstrated his flexibility, of course, with his willingness to switch Chelsea to a 3-4-3 system on the basis of the personnel available to him – just as he abandoned 4-2-4 for 3-5-2 at Juventus. Systems are “the clothes that best fit the players,” Conte once said. But there are also Spartan qualities about the way the players are put to work. “That’s the prime difference – the training. Relentless. It sometimes seems endless,” says one source close to Conte’s league leaders. That was evident at Goodison, in the team’s capacity to break out of their own ranks with incredible intensity, despite a tough examination in the game’s first hour.
There was also a hint of how uncompromising Conte can be in his post-match press conference, when he said of match-winner and star operator Pedro that “for him it is a good season but not a fantastic season.” This was no teenager he was talking about.
“Quasi-military,” is how World Soccer describes the Conte training regime in a profile of the manager this month. The 47-year-old is a devotee of the ‘yo-yo tests’ - intervals repeated over a prolonged period of time - and apparently does not consider fitness to be an ancillary discipline, best left to his staff to run. He supervises it himself. His creed, identical to that of England rugby union coach Eddie Jones, is that you train at a higher level of intensity than that expected in the next game so your energy levels are comfortably sufficient. “You are training at game intensity or above,” says the source.
Jose Mourinho was known at Chelsea for training ground intensity, too, though at times during the catastrophic autumn of 2015 his players felt they were being flogged to death. Conte’s obsession with these sessions seems to entail knowing when enough is enough.
Players have responded, much as Juve’s did when he arrived in 2011 and took them to three successive titles. “He needed only one speech, with many simple words, to conquer both me and Juventus,” Andrea Pirlo later observed. “He had fire running through his veins and he moved like a viper. He told us: ‘This squad, dear boys, is coming off two consecutive seventh-place finishes. It's crazy. It's shocking. I am not here for this, so it's time to stop being so crap.’"
Of that trio of Premier League managers whose profile has eclipsed his own, Mourinho is the one Conte perhaps most resembles. He resisted Mourinho’s digs at him after the fiery FA Cup tie at Stamford Bridge in March, but they say the Italian is storing up some venom to dispense when the time comes.
Conte can certainly dish the fury out, Mourinho style. When his Juventus side had just beaten Midtyjlland in the Champions League four years ago, he arrived in the press room to find a journalist celebrating the 94th-minute winner Chelsea’s Victor Moses had just scored against Shakhtar Donetsk, in the same group. "Chi è quella merda che ha esultato? - Who is that piece of shit who has just celebrated (Chelsea's goal)?" - he demanded to know. "This is the game I am talking about."
His intensity these past eight months has comfortably surpassed that of Mourinho's, a man living out of suitcases in Manchester’s five-star hotels and looking for the chauffeur driven journey back to the family in London whenever he can. He has described the sensation of managing the Italian national side, before getting Chelsea’s job offer, as being “shut up in the garage half the time".
Players at Chelsea describe him spending hour after hour discussing the next challenge with them, demanding the utmost level of preparation and concentration – against opposition big and small. “Before this game there were five games to go. Now there are four games to go,” he said in the Goodison press room, late on Sunday. “For us every win is a great win and for this reason we must celebrate in the right way…”
He had ended Sunday afternoon celebrating in front of the supporters and the delight he seemed to take in their response suggested that it was still a novelty. “To create this type of link is incredible,” he said. With the title all-but Chelsea’s there will be more of that to come.