In recruiting and signing manager Antonio Conte, Chelsea has hired the one man that can single-handedly bring the club back to the heights Jose Mourinho 2.0 aspired. At only 46 years old, Conte has the resume, coaching acumen, and man-management style that fits Chelsea’s goals as a top club internationally.
This offseason was one of the most important Chelsea has faced in years. After the failure of the Jose Mourinho return, the fall from top four contention in the Premier League, and an exit from the Round 16 in the Champions League, the club was lacking a vision. With a mix of players whose age means they need to move on, high-priced players that had failed to live up to their wage bill, and a vast network of loaned players of all ages from which to draw talent, Chelsea needed to find someone with a sense of ability to balance a roster as well as squeeze every last ounce of talent from the players given.
In addition, the moves of Chelsea’s rivals increased the pressure on the club to not only make a splash but to make the right move. Undoubtedly, Manchester City’s hiring of Pep Guardiola and opening its wallet even wider to the players of his choosing makes Manchester City, on paper, the power going into new season of the Premier League. Manchester United, while still floundering with decisions to make on a post-Ferguson direction, could choose the former Chelsea man Mourinho to return the Red Devils to glory in the short term. Having both these men, as well as a rising Tottenham and an rejuvenated Liverpool under Jurgen Klopp, means a Chelsea poor hire could mean even fewer Champions League matches and a harder time cracking the top four, much less winning the Premier League.
How does Conte fit these needs? The legendary Juve player always seemed to manage with a goal in mind: to manage his former club. While learning the trade with Bari and Siena, Conte was able to take sides with some resources but a history of underachievement and bring both to Serie A. When he finally got the call to Turin, he did not disappoint, kicking off the run of scudetti that Juventus’ is still on. His 2011-2012 Juventus team finished the season undefeated – a first in modern Serie A – and two years later The Old Gray Lady finished top of the table with a record 102 points.
How can his past success point to future success with Chelsea?
While Conte had no lack of resources as Juventus, he did have a deft ability to manage both egos and players for the betterment of the team. As Paolo Bandini noted in The Guardian, Conte has a nasty anger streak that, rather than alienate his players, seems to inspire even the most course veterans. Partly that is because he stands up for them, even changing his favored 4-2-4 formation used successfully in Serie B to accommodate the legendary Andrea Pirlo. Even with John Terry moving on, Conte should be able to not only handle but inspire players like Cesc Fabregas who have talent but are seemingly uninspired in the current squad.
Tactical innovation and Italian soccer do not usually go together, but Conte has an eye for how his players move on the field. At Bari and Siena, he modified the traditional 4-4-2 by moving his wingers farther up the field, overwhelming the opponent’s midfield and defense on the attack. This tactic, unusual in football, worked with these lower-sided clubs but he was not wedded to them when he was hired by Juventus.
Recognizing what Pirlo brought, as well as what he had, Conte settled in the now famous 3-5-2. In his five-man midfield, Pirlo was the creative pivot while one or two other central midfielders provided either defensive balance or the occasional forward run, and the active wingers were retained. To make it work, Conte leaned heavily on his veteran keeper and three smart, well trained defenders (including one from his time in Bari) to give his attack a steel backbone. While undoubtedly he will have to go shopping to strengthen Chelsea’s backline, we also could see another new formation in response to his roster, or simply what is given to him by the more tactically diverse opponents.
Conte is not without his faults. His Juventus teams never won the UEFA Champions League. His Italian national team legacy is unwritten, and he has been followed by scandal his entire career. But if Chelsea wanted someone with the temperament, tactical smarts, and top-flight success of the other big-named managers Chelsea will be competing with for trophies, then they could not have hired anyone better.