There is a story from Andrea Pirlo’s autobiography that casts a little light on what Antonio Conte is like when he sees something that displeases him.
Conte had just been appointed as manager of Juventus, and on his first day of training, introduced himself in astonishing fashion.
“It’s time we stopped being c--p,” Conte fumed. “Every single person here has performed badly over the last couple of seasons. Turning around this ship is not a polite request. It’s an order, a moral obligation.”
It is not known whether Conte treated the Chelsea squad to a similar tongue-lashing last summer. But given the transformation that followed, you hesitate to rule it out. Conte inherited an underperforming squad from Jose Mourinho and has turned it into one of the most ruthless winning machines in Premier League history. As the pair prepare to meet again at Old Trafford on Sunday, this is how Conte ripped up the Mourinho blueprint in just nine months.
1) Tactics and training
Conte did not originally intend to switch Chelsea to the 3-4-3 system that now looks like a title-winning masterstroke. He began pre-season in the same 4-2-4 shape that he used to good effect at Bari and Siena. But a poor start to the season, recurring defensive issues and a lack of faith in Michy Batshuayi as a second striker forced him into change.
Like Arrigo Sacchi and Louis van Gaal, two of the biggest tactical influences on his career, Conte prefers creativity to stem from the system rather than individuals. “Players must put their talent into the team,” he says. And so while Chelsea’s fluid movement, quick interchanges and lightning counter-attacks may look spontaneous, they are anything but.
Conte likes a training routine called 11 v 0 (also known as shadow play), in which the team practises attacking combinations without opposition. The exercise can be customised to include special instructions, like a cross, or a maximum of one touch each, but the objective is the same: to keep repeating attacking moves until they become, as Eden Hazard puts it, “automatism”.
Added to this is the painstaking video analysis of which Conte is a helpless devotee. He even wrote his coaching thesis on it. Sessions routinely last more than an hour, which originally met with some resistance from the squad. But once the results started rolling in, they could see the benefits for themselves. “He prepares us precisely about every opposing side, so we go into each game with the correct plan,” said Willian.
This is a clean break from the Mourinho era. Mourinho is brilliant at organising a defence, but his approach to attacking play is pretty basic. In fact, at most of his clubs, it consists largely of signing or inheriting an established world-class striker and letting them get on with it. “Mourinho put in a system, but we didn’t work lots,” Hazard said recently. “We know what to do, because we play football, but maybe the automatisms were a little bit different.”
2) Personnel and recruitment
Under Conte, Chelsea are scoring and conceding at roughly the same rate they did in Mourinho’s title-winning season of 2014-15. The interesting distinction is how. They are running more, intercepting more, tackling less and playing more directly. It is, in short, a more proactive and energetic team, which reflects the subtle changes in personnel since Conte took over. Players like Victor Moses, Marcos Alonso and Pedro have added vigour to a squad that was beginning to look distinctly leggy.
This is a more seminal moment than it seems. Every major trophy Chelsea have won in the modern age has come with at least three of the established Mourinho spine - Petr Cech, John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba - playing a significant role. Should Chelsea win the title this season, Terry, with five league appearances, would only just qualify for a medal.
New signings like Alonso and N’Golo Kante have obviously played their part. But Conte has also tapped into a vast talent pool that Mourinho largely ignored: the battery of satellite loan players, many of whom had despaired of ever playing for Chelsea. “He never spoke to me,” Moses said of Mourinho. “I think we chatted a couple of times on the phone. But that was it.”
After years of treading water, the likes of Moses and Nathaniel Chalobah have been reintegrated back into the squad. And even a relatively innocuous move like recalling Nathan Ake from Bournemouth sends a message to each of the 37 Chelsea players currently on loan: the path to the first team is open.
3) Mentality and media strategy
“When you arrive at a new team,” Conte said on Friday, you must love this team: love the shirt, love the players, love the fans." In an age when players and managers trot from club to club with impunity, Conte demands total commitment. In return, he offers exactly the same.
He hardly ever criticises his players in public, and even when he does saves his choicest barbs for his most valuable players. There is very little chance of Conte freezing out a star player like Juan Mata, as Mourinho did during his last spell at Chelsea, or publicly condemning players like Luke Shaw and Anthony Martial, as he has done at Manchester United.
Conte is not incapable of mind games. And he is certainly not ignorant of what is being said and written about his team. Pirlo tells another story: at Juventus, Conte used to tape negative newspaper articles to the dressing room door, with the most offensive passages highlighted in red. “We have only one method of proving him wrong,” Conte announced. “Winning.”
Yet while you suspect that Mourinho makes his feuds personal, for Conte they are strictly business. “It’s normal for there to be conflict during a game,” he said on Friday. “But only a sporting conflict. I prefer to be focused on my team, and the game.”
But then, when you have an 18-point gap over your rival in the league table, you can say pretty much anything you want.