Kenny Archer: Antonio Conte is proving to be Chelsea's new blue-eyed boy
AS responses to criticism go, that from Antonio Conte’s Chelsea has been right up there with the best.
Just over 10 weeks ago, there were articles appearing suggesting the Italian was at risk of receiving the sack at Stamford Bridge. Now, he’s sitting pretty at the top of the Christmas tree, looking down and laughing at everyone else. Ho Ho Ho, it’s a Blue Christmas.
Chelsea have broken their own club record for consecutive league victories, with 12, and are well clear at the top of the table. Admittedly, few would have predicted that tremendous run of results, but to hang question marks over Conte just six games into his first league campaign in England was ludicrous.
The 47-year-old had repeatedly proven his managerial worth, notably at Juventus and then with Italy, who only exited Euro 2016 after a tense penalty shoot-out against old rivals Germany.
The key about Antonio Conte, as a player and as a manager, has been his adaptability and his appetite for hard work and improvement, qualities he ensures are transmitted to his players.
The man himself explained his approach in a TV interview - seeking perfection, basically: “The word ‘coach’ has to encompass everything. You can’t only be good at tactics, just as you can’t only be good at motivation, just as you can’t only be good from a psychological point of view, just as you can’t only be good in how you manage the club and the media.
“You have got to be good at everything. You have got to try and excel at everything. To do this, you have got to study and, since I became a coach, for me, it has been continuous study.”
He’s clearly a quick learner, one who is prepared to try different methods out before settling on a successful formula. His Wikipedia entry declares that ‘as a manager, Conte is known for using the 3-5-2 formation (or in certain cases, its more defensive variant, 5–3–2)’.
Funnily enough, the ‘Christmas tree formation’ (4-3-2-1) was about the only modern variant Conte didn’t use in his club coaching career. He deployed 4-2-4, 4-1-4-1, 3-3-4, 4-3-3 and went with the popular 4-2-3-1, at first, with Chelsea. Yet, after high profile league losses to Liverpool and Arsenal, he boldly switched to yet another system, 3-4-3.
I continue to contend that ‘three at the back’ and ‘wing-backs’ generally don’t work well for British and Irish teams, who are culturally conditioned to four at the back. They leave gaps in behind the wing-backs, the centre-backs tend to leave marking duties to each other and the team is left lacking bodies in attack. None of that applies to Conte’s Chelsea - not least because Gary Cahill is the only British or Irish player in their starting side.
The move to 3-4-3 involved altering all departments of his team. Yet, the defensive aspect - and effect - is extremely important, as illustrated by Chelsea conceding just twice during this run of 12 wins, keeping 10 clean sheets.
Although the two key changes were the introduction of the wing-backs, Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses, arguably the key player is Cesar Azpilicueta.
The Spaniard has made his name at Chelsea as a full-back, but he’s now deployed on the right of the three centre-backs. His pace and defensive nous are vital, given that Moses is not a natural wing-back, or at least wasn’t until Conte cannily spotted his attributes fitted that role.
It’s no surprise to learn that Azpilicueta began his career as a forward, before moving into midfield and even featuring at centre-back before becoming known as a right-back. So talented is he that Chelsea even used him at left-back for a time.
His then club-mate Juan Mata quite rightly hailed him on his arrival at the Bridge as “a complete player”. Azpilicueta’s reading of the game allows the central-defender of the back-three, David Luiz, to bring the ball out from the back.
Chelsea were derided for re-signing the Brazilian, but his talent has never been in doubt, merely where he should play. He can be a liability as one of two centre-halves but, with protection around him, he has the ability to flourish.
It’s a similar scenario further up the field for Eden Hazard. A multi-functional, indeed functional, player himself - as he readily acknowledged - Conte recognised Hazard does not need to be tracking back, taking himself into parts of the pitch where he becomes more of a risk to his own team than a threat to the opposition. Instead, the Belgian has the freedom to do damage around and inside the opposition penalty area.
It’s no surprise Conte makes the most of his players - it’s what he did during his own playing career. Those two perceived luxury players, Luiz and Hazard, provide much of the creativity that might come from a playmaker in a midfield three, such as Andrea Pirlo did at Juventus.
Cesc Fabregas has mostly been squeezed out of the starting side recently. Instead, Conte has gone with just two central-midfielders, N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic.
That two-man screen provides all-round protection. Obviously, they contribute greatly to Chelsea’s defensive solidity, along with a great goalkeeper in Thibaut Courtois. However, they not only allow the forward players to attack with confidence, but also give the wing-backs and even the three deeper defenders the licence to push up the pitch.
Matic and Kante are not just ‘sitters’ either, both having the engines to motor from box-to-box when occasion demands it. All those players flooding forward, augmented by the Conte-like ‘workhorse with added goals’ that is Willian, or the flair of Pedro when he’s on the pitch, creates chances for the classic centre-forward Diego Costa.
The Brazilian-born Spain international has all the attributes of a top-class number nine: strong in the air, powerful shot, great finishing ability, a willing runner who’ll battle all game with opposition centre-halves.
Of course, arguably, Chelsea have been a little lucky so far in terms of injuries and results. All teams have hard luck stories, but the only dropped points they might quibble about came in their 2-2 draw at Swansea, when Cahill was fouled in the lead-up to the hosts’ second goal. However, they were well-beaten by Liverpool and especially by Arsenal.
Yet, Chelsea have been ruthlessly efficient in this winning streak, exciting going forward and mistake-free in defence. Sure, the campaign hasn’t even quite reached the halfway stage yet and Chelsea still have to go to Anfield, Old Trafford and White Hart Lane.
However, given the improvement Conte has effected already, his reputation for driving players on and their lack of European involvement, they are deservedly strong favourites to regain the title.
The ‘Ghost of Chelsea past’ - aka Jose Mourinho - could come back to haunt them in the near future, although probably not this season. The world record transfer fee for Paul Pogba and big bucks for Eric Bailly and Henrikh Mkhitaryan are all looking like money well spent, as is the huge salary that’s going to Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
But Conte should have the last laugh this season.