London – The expectation in pre-season was for a sophisticated coach from Europe to arrive at his new Premier League club and drive them to the title. It was supposed to be Pep Guardiola at Manchester City or José Mourinho at Manchester United. Goodness knows, they were backed to the hilt in terms of money for new signings.
It was not supposed to be Antonio Conte at Chelsea. And yet, as he looks forward to Monday’s home fixture against Middlesbrough and Friday’s visit to West Bromwich Albion, he can almost touch the glory. Were Conte to pull it off, and the coming week will surely be decisive with Chelsea’s final two games at home to Watford and Sunderland, then the achievement will be celebrated just as loudly in his native Italy.
Maybe not as loudly as when another Italian surged to the title in England last season. Claudio Ranieri’s feat at Leicester City was the ultimate Cinderella story, but Conte would be feted and is set to become the fourth Italian coach in eight seasons to win the Premier League title. The sequence started with Carlo Ancelotti at Chelsea in 2009-2010 and it also took in Roberto Mancini’s triumph at Manchester City in 2011-12.
It is not just in England where Italian managers have thrived and are thriving. Ancelotti has already wrapped up this season’s Bundesliga title for Bayern Munich, while Conte pointed out that his former assistant with the Italy national team, Massimo Carrera, has Spartak Moscow clear at the top of the Russian league. Max Allegri is on course for the title with Juventus and he also has one foot in the Champions League final after last Wednesday’s 2-0 semi-final, first-leg win at Monaco.
What is it about Italian coaches? Certainly, Serie A offers them the comprehensive grounding. Paul Pogba, the Manchester United midfielder, who spent four seasons at Juventus, described Italy’s top division as “the university of football, especially at a tactical level”. Then, there is Coverciano, the Italian Football Federation’s acclaimed technical centre and finishing school for managers.
To Conte, it comes down to the flexibility of Italian coaches and it is a trait he has demonstrated during what has been a wonderful season for him. His most high-profile tweak was to a 3-4-3 system after Chelsea struggled in the early weeks, but there has been so much careful man-management behind the scenes. He has adapted to the individual needs of his players and he has helped, say, Eden Hazard to feel good about himself, which has enabled him to hit top form. Diego Costa has simmered for much of the season but Conte has still been able to push his buttons on match days.
“There is a good school in Italy but, honestly, when you arrive in England and you face this league, you must change your mind on a lot of things,” Conte says. “You must adapt very well and very quickly to this league. It is very difficult, very strong and it’s totally different to the Italian or Spanish leagues.
“In every single game, you must fight a lot. You must put all of yourself into every game and if you think you’re playing a team at a medium level you’re actually preparing for a defeat. For this reason it’s not easy [for an English team] to reach the end of a European competition. Also, for the national team, it’s very difficult to do very well in the World Cup or the Euros because you arrive at the end of the season and the players are tired.”
When Conte was unveiled at Chelsea last July, he alluded to the importance of adaptability. “The coach is a tailor, who must make the best dress for the team,” he said. It is plain that he feels further evolution will be needed next season, when the club make their return to the Champions League.
“It’s important to finish this season and then find the right solution – to prepare our team to face next season,” he says. “Are this Chelsea team good enough as they are for the Champions League? On this, I like to tell my opinion to the club, not the papers. The first pass must be to the club, to tell my opinions about this season and the next, and to find the right solution to be more competitive. Then, it is to face the situation – to sell or to buy new players.”
That is for the summer. For now, Conte is consumed by Middlesbrough and the final title push. It stands to lead him into elite company. “For sure, I looked at the past in England and I saw many Italian managers had won the title,” he says. “It’s great for our school and it’s logical to be proud, no? Last season, I supported Claudio Ranieri a lot to win the title and in Italy we celebrated this win in a great way.”
The Guardian Sport