As the dust settles on Chelsea’s latest Premier League triumph – a fifth title since Roman Abramovich bought the club in 2003 – there is plenty to reflect on as well as look forward to for the Blues’ faithful.
Chelsea have made winning a habit of theirs over the past couple of decades, particularly since the Russian billionaire’s takeover of the club nearly 14 years ago. Despite all the chaos and conflict in their recent history, the Blues have managed to steadily add to their burgeoning trophy cabinet.
Not only have Chelsea won the Premier League title before, they’ve done it under an Italian manager in his first season in charge of the club. There is a distinct sense, however, that the 16/17 title could be the beginning of something special. That the achievement in itself is arguably the most special of the five Premier League titles Chelsea have won over the past 12 years.
Yes, here we are again.
The more cynical Chelsea supporters will remember the premature predictions of an ‘era of domination’ following Jose Mourinho’s third title with the club in 14/15 and may be reticent to make similarly grandiose predictions.
But, if the Blues play their cards right, they could be set for another decade of success on the foundations which Antonio Conte is currently building at the club.
Antonio Conte – A special man and an even better manager
The enduring memories of the 2016/17 season for Chelsea fans will be those on the touchline every bit as much as those on the pitch.
When Michy Batshuayi’s unlikely winner sent the away supporters into raptures on Friday, Conte celebrated in typical fashion; turning around in ecstasy, not knowing quite what to do with himself, before launching onto the nearest thing that would hold his weight – the entire coaching staff in this instance – and cutting his lip in the process.
Though the Blues have seen plenty of the like throughout the course of this season, it will be a while before they tire of it. When Conte was introduced to the English media and fans in his first press conference, his hesitant, carefully measured English distorted nothing of his core message.
The most important takeaway was crystal clear: ‘Win or lose,’ Conte said, ‘but if we are able to transfer our passion to the fans, I think this is a great victory for me, for the players, for the club.’ ‘Transferring passion’ has been a recurring theme in the former Juventus manager’s press conferences this season and it is clear that he saw that as the best way to mend a broken club which had registered its worst Premier League finish in decades in the previous campaign.
And Conte set about doing just that right from the very first game of the season. In the Premier League opener against West Ham, Diego Costa’s late winner sparked wild celebrations. Conte, for his part, launched himself into the home crowd. In that moment, Chelsea fans already knew they were dealing with someone special.
The Italian has appeared to live every moment since that day as a fan as much as the coach of the team and that has undoubtedly had the effect of bridging the disconnect that had developed between the fans and the players due to the calamitous 2015-16 season. The Italian’s vitality on the touchline and the sheer force of his personality have been utterly compelling this season and fans have been left asking for more.
None of that would have mattered, of course, had Conte not produced the results that he has with Chelsea. It is quite easy to be carried away by the emotional aspect of the beautiful game, but ultimately, Conte’s tactical nous and cold decision-making have been key to the Blues’ fifth title.
After initially experimenting with a 4-1-4-1 system with N’golo Kante as the holding midfielder, the Italian manager switched to his famed three-at-the-back system halfway through a painful defeat against Arsenal at the Emirates. His 3-4-3 or 3-4-2-1 proved to be so successful that Chelsea proceeded to go on a 13-match win streak that put them in a great position to challenge for the title.
A reincarnated Victor Moses found himself flourishing at right wing-back, the ball-playing David Luiz excelled in his sweeper role at the heart of the back three, N’golo Kante was let loose in a more dynamic, box-to-box capacity, while Eden Hazard was given the freedom to roam in a central role behind striker Diego Costa.
Through hard work on the training ground and on the pitch, Conte went about building an identity for a team so clearly lacking in one, practically since Carlo Ancelotti’s departure from the club in 2011. Chelsea still have the ability to mix up their style of football, but the overarching philosophy is constant. The Blues are now an instantly recognizable side for the first time in years and in creating this identity over the past nine months, Conte has achieved something special.
The Premier League has never been more competitive
Of course, winning the Premier League title is particularly special after finishing 10th the previous season, but the achievement is all the more impressive considering this is arguably the most competitive the league has been relative to any of the seasons in which Chelsea have previously won the title.
Not only were Antonio Conte’s side outspent in the transfer window by the Manchester clubs, who had each appointed in the summer one of the two most successful managers in world football in the past decade, but one could make a strong case that, man-for-man, Chelsea were only about the third or fourth best team in the country. Indeed, following the 3-0 defeat to Arsenal at the Emirates at the beginning of the season, most Blues’ supporters felt finishing in the top four would be a struggle.
When Jose Mourinho first arrived in England and took the Premier League by storm, none of Chelsea’s competitors quite had the same spending power and not many had the same quality in the squad to provide a sustained challenge for the title. The 05-06 triumph, in particular, was a fait accompli by the middle of the season. In 2009-10, Manchester City were still not quite the same force as they are now, while Tottenham Hotspur were certainly nowhere near their current level.
Only the 2014-15 season is comparable, but even that edition of the world’s most popular league did not quite boast the same lineup of managers that have graced England this campaign. Consider this: Jose Mourinho, Pep Guardiola, Arsene Wenger and Jurgen Klopp are all league-winning managers, while Mauricio Pochettino has led Tottenham Hotspur to their best league finish in history by a comfortable margin this season.
Chelsea have the opportunity to finish the 2016/17 league campaign with a whopping 93 points — two shy of the Premier League points record — and 30 wins, which would be a new Premier League record. To do so given the level of competition in the division would, by any measure, be a special achievement.
In what has been billed as the ‘era of the super manager’ in the English Premier League, Antonio Conte has drawn first blood and firmly established himself and his team as the benchmark for other title-chasing managers.
The dawn of a new era
As much as Manchester United, Manchester City and arguably even Liverpool are teams in transition, so are Chelsea. That has been yet another remarkable aspect of the Blues’ season. Antonio Conte’s objective in his first season in charge was, as one would reasonably expect, a top four finish.
Not only was he tasked with phasing out the likes of Branislav Ivanovic and John Terry, but ostensibly also building a core for the medium to long term. Conte has had more time than his counterparts to work with his team given the Blues did not qualify for European competition, but he has still far exceeded expectations by winning the title in a transitional year.
Antonio Conte spent significant money in the summer transfer window, but evidently did not acquire most of his targets — particularly in defence. David Luiz and Marcos Alonso have had fantastic seasons, but both were signed on Deadline Day, and neither were first choice. Michy Batshuayi, meanwhile, has seen very little game time and despite scoring the title-winning goal, his contribution has been limited.
There is every indication that Chelsea are set for a big summer as the Italian looks to improve his team to compete in the Champions League. The current starting XI, then, is likely to change significantly next season. Conte is still very much in the process of building his team at Stamford Bridge.
It is also a particularly significant title win for Chelsea because it came without contribution from the original ‘core’ of the team: the likes of Petr Cech, John Terry, Ashley Cole, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba. The longest-serving Chelsea player in Conte’s first-choice XI this season was captain Gary Cahill, who has just over 150 league appearances for the club.
Not counting David Luiz, who returned after a spell with French giants Paris Saint-Germain, or Cesc Fabregas, who has been crucial despite his limited appearances, five of the starting XI made their first appearance for the club in 2014 or later.
Particularly given the uncertain futures of Diego Costa and possibly even Eden Hazard, Conte still has a ways to go to build an elite team that can consistently compete domestically and in Europe at the highest level. That he has achieved success in this transitional season bodes well for the future.
Antonio Conte himself has been linked to the likes of Inter Milan and even Barcelona, and the Italian has thus far refused to unequivocally state that he will be at the club next season. While this is natural given contract talks are supposedly underway, Roman Abramovich must know that he has a special manager in Conte and keep him in SW6 at all costs.
For Chelsea, this season has been unforgettable. Antonio Conte, as the mastermind behind the success, already holds a special place in the hearts of the club’s supporters, who would like nothing more than to see the passionate Italian bouncing up and down on the touchline for years to come.