With rumours abound about Inter Milan’s bumper offer and the soon-to-be-vacant Barcelona job, we look at why Chelsea and Antonio Conte should remain a partnership for the foreseeable future
In his pre-match interview before the crucial Southampton game last weekend, Antonio Conte made a special mention of wishing Chelsea’s youth team the best in their FA Youth Cup final the next day against Manchester City. He could have left it at that.
But he did not. Not only did he attend the final, but also went into the dressing room to give a post-match speech. In the eyes of many Chelsea fans, this was the ultimate sign that he is in it for the long haul. That he cares so much about the club and its future, he took time out to watch the youth team play.
Long haul is a relative term, of course. For a Chelsea fan, it would mean a manager at least running out the tenure of his contract. While Jose Mourinho was famously ‘against’ using youth players unless they proved themselves elsewhere first, Conte took a certain Pogba under his wing at Juventus and made him 100m-worthy.
As a player, the Italian was tenacious, gritty and ran till his legs stopped working. As a manager, he has carried over his energy on the other side of the white line. While that is an endearing sight for home fans, imagine being his neighbour in the opposition technical area. His boundless energy, his antics, his in-your-face attitude to other managers have made him an instant fan-favourite.
At the very core of his footballing philosophy is his belief that as manager, he has to be the best at all aspects of his job. Whether it be man-management, tactics or handling the media. His career chart has shown his strive to achieve that too. Starting with two spells at Serie B side Arezzo to facing difficult times at Atalanta to eventually winning the Scudetto with Juventus, he has shown a desire to learn. To learn from his mistakes.
His rise to the top also hasn’t been smooth, nor has it been handed over on a silver platter just because of his playing pedigree either. He couldn’t even keep Arezzo in Serie B in his first season, yet managed to lead Bari to Serie A in the next. He still had to work hard to get the attention of the Juventus hierarchy, managing yet another second-division side in Siena and only then getting the job at the Bianconeri.
Most importantly, it is his belief in himself that is unmovable. His much-maligned ‘defensively minded’ Italy side took Euro 2016 by storm. His unorthodox 3-5-2 formation, now his staple, has brought about a revolution (so much so even the ever-stubborn Arsene Wenger tried a 3-man defence recently).
In the current Chelsea setup, there cannot be a better example of the defensive discipline the Italian instills in his players than that of David Luiz. The Brazilian is known to be a bit of a wild child when it comes to defending, often drifting out of position. Under Conte, however, he is the central of his 3 men in defence and rarely ventures in the attacking half. In fact, the previously goal-scoring defender just has one to his name this season – a free-kick against Liverpool.
From instilling discipline to instilling respect in players, he has tried to do it all this first season. In the tough games, he has not been afraid to take bold decisions. Whether it be benching a World Cup winner in Cesc Fabregas or Chelsea’s club captain John Terry, he has been the tough taskmaster everyone wanted him to be.
On the other hand, however, he has single-handedly managed to revive the dying Chelsea careers of Victor Moses and Pedro. He took the former Bolton Wanderers man Marcos Alonso and made him into a world-class left wing-back. Even Gary Cahill, who was a player under immense scrutiny last season. He has not only found his mojo again, but also been touted to take over from Terry as Chelsea skipper next season.
In terms of giving opportunities to youth, however, it makes bad reading for the Italian. Only Ruben Loftus-Cheek has been somewhat of a regular in the first eleven, while Nathaniel Chalobah and Nathan Ake have been there or there about. It is something that Chelsea fans are used to, however. But it is also something that must change soon too.
As with any new relationship, the first year is a almost always a breeze. It is in the second year that the little flaws start to show, and quite possibly start to gnaw at you. Chelsea fans have to realise that there will be a dip in form, probably next season or the one after. It is then that their faith in Conte will be tested.
It is then that his enthusiasm may look a tad over. His tough nature, too tough. Traditionally, that is where Chelsea fans have turned against their managers. The fans have to realise the idea of keeping Conte at Chelsea is not the club’s responsibility only.
A few bad results, a rumour about China here and there, and groans of disappointment in the stadium start to become even more audible. For the manager to succeed, it is important that the fans trust him too. Easier said than done, yes. But Chelsea have not even given that chance to any manager yet.
To Chelsea’s credit, though, this time it looks like they are in it for the future. With talks of extending his contract beyond 2019, it is imperative that the Blues tie him up quickly. Rumours of a head-spinning £10m-a-year offer by Inter Milan refuses to go away, and the ever-present Chinese Super League interest still lingers.
Conte has been a breath of fresh air in the Premier League too. In a league that has Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola as his two main rivals, he has, with relative ease, managed to pip them to the post this season. From bouncing back after two straight losses to Liverpool and Arsenal, to going on a 13-game winning streak, the Italian has shown that he deserves to be here.
If not for anything, Chelsea should just keep him for his energetic, but sometimes over-the-top celebrations.