London – The manager inherited a mess but has glued together a title-winning side with his tactical nous, fierce work ethic and by bringing back the fun. After an extended, processional run-in that started as a head-down sprint away from the peloton and settled into an imperious push from the front, Chelsea are once again champions of the Premier League. Friday night’s crowning victory at The Hawthorns was the 25th in 30 league matches since Antonio Conte’s decisive re-gearing of his team in September, the tactical switches that have coaxed such a thrilling run from this team of bolt-ons and upcycled squad players, most notably Victor Moses, who was dredged out of the laundry bin in the autumn to become a key part of the title surge.
This feels like a significant league title in more ways than one. It is now 14 years since Roman Abramovich emerged as a spendthrift presence in west London. Five titles and a Champions League win have now sealed Chelsea’s place as the dominant English club of that period. For all the glories of the Ferguson end-game, Manchester City’s rise and Arsenal’s unflinching desire to finish in the top four and occasionally win the FA Cup, this is now Chelsea’s mini-era.
Not to mention confirmation if any were needed of elite English football’s main subtext since the turn of the century, the transformational dominance of overseas billionaire investment. Just as significant in the long term, Chelsea were also granted permission this season for their new on-site mega-stadium, a 60,000-seat upgrade that will mean the current Stamford Bridge is razed and replaced by something that looks like a vast alien space yurt made of giant Martian redwood stems.
It is another pointer toward Abramovich’s vast capital expenditure. But also a firm move towards the oft-promised sustainable future. Such talk chimes with the season just past and with Conte’s own kitchen-sink achievement in taking a team with net spend of £20m this season to a dominant league title.
It is Conte’s part in this that shines through, not just as an example of ruthlessly detailed coaching and man management, but as something new also. There have been 11 changes of manager during that run of Chelsea trophies, with the implication always that the structures and hierarchy are what really keep this club rolling on.
In Conte Chelsea have something different, a manager who inherited a messy, enervated squad fresh from the worst title defense in 25 years and threw a lightning bolt through pretty much the same group of players to create a fresh champion team.
Conte has broken the mold further with the suggestion he might escape the Abramovich cleaver, becoming the first of his line to leave by his own volition. Those recurrent noises in Italy about a move to Internazionale have resurfaced this week. It seems overwhelmingly likely Conte will stay, pay rise pending. But it is a feat of rare political skill to have made himself so unusually vital to the current success.
How has he done it? Attention has focused on the much-celebrated switch to playing a back three after the defeats by Liverpool and Arsenal in September. Chelsea were crunching about in reverse gear at the time. Reports have suggested senior management were underwhelmed by performances. Conte had arrived a week early despite spending his summer with Italy at the Euros. Exhausted, he went home during the international break to see his family and brood. On his return the team that faced Hull City had been reconfigured. Moses wasn’t overly drilled, just told he would be playing right wing-back, that Conte had seen enough to know.
It will be tempting to compare that switch to the shift Conte made in his first season at Juventus, when he rejigged his formation to find a way of placing Arturo Vidal at the heart of his team. This was different, a profound resizing of angles and personnel that has made every part clunk into place, with key players given roles that emphasize their strengths and mitigate their weaknesses.
A moment of wider clarity, but one that Conte had been working towards. “It takes time to accept the sheer amount of work he is asking of you,” Luca Marrone, an Italy Under-21 midfielder who played under Conte at Juve told the Guardian this year. “Everything he does, in preparation or tactical organization, is done with maniacal precision and attention to detail. It can be overwhelming at first. But when you realize by buying into it you can win things, you follow.”
Senior players were skeptical to begin with, startled by Conte’s aggressively interventionist training sessions, practice constantly stopped by that barking voice, points of positional detail brutally drilled. In part Conte pulled this off because his manner and his own playing record demand respect. But also he brought back the fun, encouraging a familial atmosphere with barbecues, bottles of wine handed out, and bonding sessions with players and club staff.
N’Golo Kanté embodies both sides of this, a player whose early scratchiness was soothed with glorious results in the new 3-4-3 formation, allowed simply to be his best, most wonderfully mobile, diligent, destructive self. Plus Kanté is something new. Get this: Chelsea have the most popular player in the league, a man nobody could seriously boo, albeit even the notably lovable Kanté is perhaps a little fetishised in his humility, his scooter-riding, the Premier League’s own friendly, scuttling Bilbo Baggins.
The system locked David Luiz into his perfect role, given protection by that meaty wedge in front. Both wing-backs are allowed simply to steam up and down their flanks following the line of possession. The attacking three have also been allowed to bloom. Liberated from deep defensive duties Eden Hazard has become more expressive, more obviously, flashily complete. Not to mention more saleable too, his role closer to the way Europe’s monied giants in Spain and France allow their stars to function.
Where to rank this Chelsea team, even among recent versions at the same club, is another question. Six months old, a half-season project, they are already more watchable and more coherent than the second phase of the title-winning team of two years ago; but not at the level of the luminous, steamrollering Mourinho Mk1 team, a rare concurrence of prime-cut talent and a manager in the sweet spot of his own powers.
But then this is essentially a pop-up team, glued into place brilliantly, with certain parts already chafing and smoking. Chelsea’s two top goalscorers could be off in a month, Diego Costa to cause an international incident in China, Hazard to the usual summer suspects. Plus of course for all the excitement at Conte using only 18 different players in the starting XI in the league, rotation has been stilled only because Chelsea haven’t needed it, often playing only one game a week.
When the team might have tired from that hard-running style they have had days to rest. When first Sam Allardyce and then José Mourinho exposed a certain weakness against a two-man attack, and also when the “supply” players, Hazard and Pedro, were man-marked, Conte had a week to drill his team and patch this up.
Next season will, as ever, be a different matter, another problem for Conte to solve as he looks to extend his personal record of four straight league titles in club football across England and Italy. Given his hunger for more – more time, more detail, more work – only the brave or the foolish would bet against him.