Let there be no mistake about it, Conte has worked miracles this season. Were it not for the fairytale of Leicester‘s title win, we’d be talking about this as the greatest turnaround in Premier League history. And he has done all this with no fanfare; in his own quiet, unassuming, self-deprecating way.
The first step towards glory came back in February 2016 – five months before he was unveiled as Chelsea boss. It was his first meeting with Roman Abramovich and Michael Emenalo, and he bore a list of players he needed to make Chelsea great again. At the top of that list was the man who would go on to be double player of the year, this campaign: N’Golo Kante.
N’Golo Kante of Chelsea and Antonio Conte, Manager of Chelsea celebrate after the Premier League match between Everton and Chelsea at Goodison Park on April 30, 2017 in Liverpool, England.Getty Images
Kante, in so many ways, mirrors Conte’s personality. Publicly quiet, incredibly determined, a man with little time for frippery. It was a match made in heaven and – along with the re-signing of David Luiz, plus the acquisition of unfancied wing back Marcos Alonso – cast the mould for the season to follow.
All the talk coming from Italy about Conte focused on his intensity. It spoke of a man who would eat, sleep and breathe football – living every kick of every game both in real time, and for the other 22 and a half hours of the day.
That was accurate; but it overlooked a good humour, and a relaxed nature, which helped lift the fug of failure of Jose Mourinho‘s scorched earth final months, and the diffident team reaction to Guus Hiddink.
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho talks to the media during a press conference at Chelsea Training Ground on December 11, 2015 in Cobham, England.Getty Images
It was evident from that first moment, when he smiled at the press pack: most of us hadn’t seen a smile born of anything other than sarcasm or embarrassment for a good 12 months. And he worked that apparently innocent nature on us all – players, reporters, fans.
Once it came to winning games it was combined with a naked passion which made him an everyman hero: thrusting himself into celebratory surges; handing out hugs like some Biblical healer; applauding, in the end, the supporters of an opposing relegated team.
He was impossible not to like. Even among Chelsea’s tight-knit first team – he very rarely deviated from a stock of 13 players unless forced – those on the outside seemed content to ride the wave. Diego Costa‘s mid-season disaffection, caused by the Chinese interest which will surely ensnare him this summer, was damped-down by Conte with no more than a single game’s dissent.
Michy Batshuayi, framed from Conte’s first press conference as a club investment, was the source of no public outcry at his almost total omission from the project. And John Terry, whose shading-out of the side had been mis-managed by at least three preceding managers, seemed to accept his fate out in the cold with an air of inevitability.
What other manager could name a club legend as his captain in one breath, then convince him to take one for the team by sitting out the season with the next?
Much of the scrutiny of this unexpected success has concentrated on Conte’s switch in formation to 3-4-3. But even that came about because of the nature of the man we have in front of us.
Having next to no pre-season in which to work things out – he came straight from Italy’s Euros – he had to work on evolving this side in real time. And by taking that pragmatic, reasoned approach, tempered by his good humoured but determined personality, he found the solution – unveiled at Arsenal – which would dominate analysis of this campaign.
But Conte, as he has shown this season, is so much more than a great tactician. He is a great manager: of players; of the press; of the fans; of his own personal affairs, flying his wife and daughter over each weekend to keep the spark of family intimacy alive while he works away from home.
The scores of selfies on social media – at train stations and restaurants; with cab drivers and street sweepers – show the bond he has formed; not just with Chelsea’s fans, but with London itself.
Conte has achieved all of this, and a Premier League title, in 10 months flat. While the pre-season talk was all about the Iberian managerial beasts of Manchester, the history books will surely record the supremacy of a quiet, but passionate, London-based Italian.
This has been Conte and Chelsea’s season, and the Premier League feels a much better place for it.
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