Hi guys. Hope you're all well. Don't we all love West Ham a little bit more? Or should I say, dislike them a little bit less? Erm, yes I think we do.
Anyway, on the occasion of that brilliant victory last night, I thought I would write some thoughts on Antonio Conte's management this term. For me, he's passed every single test with flying colours, so far. Obviously there's still five very important matches still to be played and I hope this post isn't premature, but I thought I'd put these thoughts down anyway, as I'm feeling lucky.
The first thing we have to remember is that he only joined us after the Euros. In other words, he started later than everyone else. Furthermore, this was his first time outside Italy, in a tough league, a new language, etc etc. It's easy to forget this in light of how well he's done. Mourinho had managed 6 seasons in England prior to this one, this is Pochettino's fourth season in England, Klopp had had time to adjust to England last season and Guardiola had a whole summer to focus on his new job, plus an unlimited budget. And then there's Wenger.......
When you look at Arsenal, their fans often complain about their players. They say their signings aren't good enough, the likes of Mustafi, Xhaka etc. They complain about Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ramsay, Ozil, Giroud, Bellerin, Coquelin, Mertesacker, Monreal, Gibbs etc etc. They complain about ALL their players, apart from maybe one or two. The problem it strikes me is not the players but the manager and this is where Conte comes in. Conte gets the best out of his players whereas others patently don't. We're top of the league with a back three of David Luiz, Gary Cahill and Azpilicueta, with Azpilicueta as a right-sided CB and Gary Cahill as the left-sided one. This back three have played every single Premiership game together since Luiz came into the team. Luiz, remember, was mocked upon his return. Cahill will never be considered an elite player. Azpilicueta is hardly the tall, strong prototype for CBs up and down the Premiership. It's an unlikely combination, to put it mildly. Furthermore, we all know Conte had his heart set on other defenders in August, but it hardly mattered, because this guy knows how to get the best out of what he's got.
Look at Luiz. He's been outstanding this season. Even his fiercest critic would admit that. We all knew he had ability but did he have defensive discipline? Conte has given him that discipline. Luiz likes to get involved in the game, to run upfield, to carry the ball, to go chasing the ball, to run out of position. We all know this. Conte had to get inside his head. He had to change his game completely. In a way, he had to take the fun out of it. He had to say to Luiz, "Look, I know you enjoy playing the game a certain way, but I want you to play another way, I want you to enjoy defending, I want you to enjoy being the leader at the back, the guy who hangs back, I want you to enjoy stopping, heading and clearing and tackling and blocking, I want you to enjoy that". Look at the transformation. When Luiz went down against Tottenham at Wembley, when Alli stamped on him, how did you feel? I bet you all had your heart in your mouth. Luiz has become a key player. Enormous credit must go to the manager, remember this was a player Mourinho couldn't wait to get rid of. From the moment Mourinho arrived he let it be leaked that he was open to offers for Luiz and Mata. Those were two players he deemed a luxury. Nobody's calling Luiz a luxury now.
Let's move to Cahill. I've never been a massive fan. This has undoubtedly been his most impressive season. Remember the Arsenal defeat and how poor he was? That followed poor performances at Swansea and also Leicester in the LC. His confidence was shot he looked a liability. Unbelievably, Conte changed the system, kept Cahill in the team and moved him out of position. Cahill is bad enough with his right foot let alone his left. He is as poor with his left foot as anybody you've seen, yet he's been immaculate since switching to the left, been a real important cog in the machine. He was missing against Tottenham yet we hardly missed him because Ake came in. I read these boards prior to the next game against Southampton and everybody was saying Ake should keep his place. Not Conte. In his pre-match press conference he said Cahill was coming back, because, and I quote, "Cahill is a player with a big heart". Imagine how Cahill felt, hearing that. Cahill came back in the team and scored the vital goal before half-time, a header with a big heart. Brilliant management. He made Cahill feel that little bit bigger, that little bit stronger, that little bit more important. Remember Conte was also a limited player. A limited player with a big heart. This guy doesn't need a team chock-full of superstars.
Talking of that game at Wembley. Remember seeing the team-sheet before the game? No Hazard no Costa no Fabregas? Where was the wit and invention and goals going to come from? Didn't Conte understand how important this game was, against Tottenham? I remember reading the match thread before the game, let's not pretend we were all calm about things. For me, this was Conte's most inspired and impressive move this season, and not only because he was able to bring on the big-hitters after an hour and win the game. More, it was his treatment of Costa and I was surprised nobody commented on it. Conte had a problem with Costa, a massive problem. He needed to drop him, we all knew that. The guy just wasn't performing, the guy didn't appear to have his heart in it. Every player is permitted the odd bad game especially if they've been so pivotal in propelling you up the league, but if it carries on you have a problem, not just because they're playing badly but also because it creates a credibility problem with the rest of the squad. You're supposed to pick the team on merit, right? How do you justify continually picking somebody who's forgotten how to play? Furthermore, we were in a bit of a pickle going into Wembley. We had lost to Palace and there was THAT performance at Old Trafford, where we didn't turn up for whatever reason. The trouble was, Costa is a problem player, he's high maintenance, to put it mildly. If you drop him, particularly for a showpiece game, his pride will be pricked, you may lose the player completely, he may become a disruptive influence, you have to tread with caution because you might have an even bigger problem on your hands............
What did Conte do? He dropped Costa AND he dropped Hazard, our best player, our superstar, our game-breaker, our magic man, against Tottenham in a potentially title-defining game, at Wembley in a semi-final. This would have massaged Costa's ego. This would have told Costa, you and Hazard are my main men, I'm leaving my big-hitters out of this game because I need you more against Southampton, because you're too important, because I can always rely on you from the bench. Instead of injuring Costa's pride he pumped it up. He made him feel bigger instead of smaller, and look, he came back with a bang against Southampton. Expert management. Incredible management in fact. He dropped him and he made him feel bigger. Now that's a feat.
Management is all about problem-solving. Conte had a problem and he solved it. Remember Mourinho trying to drop Costa at WHL and remember how that worked out? Costa threw his bib, he sulked on the touchline and Mourinho's authority was diminished. You have to play these things right. You have to manage the man, and Conte has been managing the man all season, the very difficult man. I bet he can't wait to get shot of him this summer but in the meantime he has to manage his squad, he has to win football matches, and that's where Conte excels, he doesn't get into personality politics, he doesn't get sidetracked he doesn't focus on the noise, he stays focused and he never loses sight of his task. He always seems to see the bigger picture rather than getting embroiled in the trivial. He's not interested, he has a title to win.
Remember when the sh*t hit the fan with Costa, back in the winter, when this offer came in from China? Again, Conte overcame that potential crisis with little fuss. We lost our record at WHL, Costa argued with Pedro on the pitch, news came in about a bust-up behind the scenes, Costa was out of the next game at Leicester, supposedly with a back injury. This had the potential to derail our season. We lose to Leicester and the vultures will really be circling. What happened? We dispatched of Leicester with ease, and we showed great unity. From a position of potential weakness we emerged stronger, and you could see how pumped up the players were and how important the win was. Nobody was going to be allowed to be distracted from the cause.
Again at Wembley, we had a potential problem, Tottenham were on an incredible run, we had started to wobble, our lead had been reduced, Tottenham were feeling invincible, the media were doing their best to ramp it up. We did what we had to do. We showed our mettle and our quality. Don't underestimate the importance of that victory. Conte was brave, with his team selection. He was vindicated, as he's invariably been this season.
Alonso and Moses. These guys wouldn't get into a bottom half team at the start of the season. They've been brilliant. They've both been key. When we sign a player I usually go visit the selling club's online forums to see what their fans think about it. Fans are usually the best barometer because they see the player week-in week-out. The Fiorentina fans were laughing, when we signed Alonso. They couldn't believe the fee. It's not that they thought he was bad, but they didn't see anything special. They said he was a liability defensively with a tendency to switch off. They said he lacked pace, etc etc. It's fair to say I was underwhelmed with the signing. I couldn't see the sense in it, particularly when we had Ake on our books and whom we could have kept. I assumed we signed Alonso because we lacked left-footers and we needed cover, both in the CB and FB departments, and that was it. Then he played, when we switched to a back three, and he looked out of his depth, he was torn to ribbons on a couple of occasions, it didn't look good. Conte knew what he was doing however. Alonso has great stamina, he's great positionally, he's an elegant footballer rather than an exceptional one but Conte has got inside his head and got the best out of him. When was the last time he was seriously troubled on his flank? Man City away? That was a long time ago now. He has become a serious footballer under Conte. Furthermore, as the season has progressed and the pressure mounted, players like Alonso and Moses are in unchartered territory. How will they cope with the pressure will their performances falter? You'd never know they've never been in this position before and again for that Conte deserves enormous credit. He's stayed calm and he's allowed his players to stay calm.
If you'd seen our line-up before the season started, the first choice XI we'd be going with this season, with Luiz and Cahill and Alonso and Moses and Matic and Pedro, you'd have thought top four was a pipe dream. It's worth remembering that when we reflect on Conte's performance. Unlike Wenger, this guy gets the best out of his performers. This guy knows how to manage them.
There was a time recently when I started to get a little worried. Performances had dipped. Luiz, Moses, Matic, Pedro, Costa etc, they weren't playing quite as well. It's one thing getting your players to perform but when they lose form you have to perform another task. That's where your management is really tested. I look at those players now and they're all back on track. Last season, once players lost their form, Jose had no idea how to get it back. Conte's management appears to be a bit more subtle.
Conte has asserted himself where he's needed to. When he's needed to, such as against Mourinho in the FA Cup, he bared his teeth. He showed he's going to be nobody's pushover, he's not going to allow anybody to take liberties. He hasn't gone looking for trouble however, he hasn't invited controversy, nor gone seeking attention. He's a breath of fresh air. Let's not underestimate the task he had. He's brought the good times back, he's brought back the feel-good factor. Watching Chelsea is a delight again. Our best players are allowed to play, he doesn't clip their wings, yet we're organised, we're well-drilled and we fight. He's got the balance right and that's why we're where we are in the league. Don't forget this is the most competitive Premiership there's ever been, with more clubs with greater resources and more high-profile managers. We were not supposed to be in the mix.
You talk to fans of other clubs. Ask them what they think of Conte. He's the best thing that's happened to this club in a very long while. This season he's provided an object lesson in the art of management. The way he's handled Terry the way he's handled Fabregas. Willian was our POTY last season yet he's invariably on the bench. Yet it's all happened with little fuss, with everybody committed to the cause. Sometimes a manager comes in and you think, "This job's too big for him". I have never had that feeling with Conte. Conte does things his way but he doesn't make a song and dance about it. I hope Roman appreciates the quality of his work and I hope he rewards him this summer, in the form of purchasing the players he wants. Whoever Conte asks for he should get because he's done enough to earn our trust. This guy is a far better manager than I ever imagined. This season has surpassed all our expectations by a million miles. We are incredibly lucky.
Courtois, Hazard, Costa, Pedro, Matic, Cahill. Think about their performances last season. There is no comparison. Conte has restored their belief and their confidence and we're reaping the reward. Ultimately as a manager you live or die by your decisions. You decide who to back and who to discard, you decide what to say and what to do, you pick the side and the formation. I can't think of too many bad decisions, can you? Not bad, considering how many decisions you have to make in a season.
We're already a good team. Imagine if Conte gets the players he wants. I think we all know there's room for improvement, and that's what makes his performance this season so impressive.
Lastly, I'll end this mammoth post with a quote from Conte's press conference yesterday. Typically in his press conferences he preaches the value of hard work, good behaviour and so on. He stresses the importance of remaining focused and together. He reminds players to think about the team rather than themselves. Yesterday he expanded a little bit and it was quite unexpected. I usually like Conte because he's so serious, especially when we lose. On the touchline he's full of passion but away from the pitch you get the feeling he's a deep thinker and that's what I want from a Chelsea coach. Yesterday we got a little glimpse into his world. He was asked if he could continue keeping Fabregas happy if he can't offer him a starting berth. Here's his response.......
"I'd like to underline a concept. I mustn't keep happy the player. We must win. You can be happy and arrive tenth and to play every game. If you are unhappy in this season that you are fighting for the title or to win the FA Cup? I don't like when I listen this type of question. I don't like. You speak about happy and I speak to win, and to work very hard. I know that to work very hard is not simple. The player is not always happy to work very hard but I think that my target is to put in the head of my players a winning mentality, and a winning mentality doesn't exist to keep the players happy because it's very difficult to keep twenty players happy, above all because I don't want to, I don't want this, I don't want this, I want players ready to fight and to try to put themselves in the team and to try to win together. Then if you are happy or unhappy I don't care for me."
I don't care either Antonio. You just keep doing what you're doing. You're doing a f**king incredible job.