Courageous, compassionate Conte heals Chelsea rifts
Just 10 months after arriving at a club ripped apart by feuds and rampant egos, Antonio Conte has healed the rifts so masterfully that Chelsea are the Premier League champions.
Conte and his players were wreathed in smiles and soaked in champagne after clinching the title with a 1-0 win at West Bromwich Albion on Friday.
Yet when the Italian drove into Chelsea's palatial training base in the leafy village of Cobham for the first time last July, he was in no mood to soak up the tranquil surroundings.
"At the start of the season it wasn't easy. We had to solve a lot of problems," he said.
Conte knew the depth of the problems lying in wait for him with a squad still in turmoil after the mutiny that cost Jose Mourinho his job and prompted a shocking slide down the table.
When club owner Roman Abramovich asked Conte to leave his role as Italy coach to sort out Chelsea's sulking stars, many felt he was on a hiding to nothing.
But the 47-year-old jumped at the chance to see if the philosophy he had honed during a stellar managerial career, which included three Serie A titles with Juventus, could work outside his homeland.
Aware that the unhappiness of players like Diego Costa, Eden Hazard and Cesc Fabregas had sowed the seeds of discontent at Chelsea, Conte hatched a plan to win over his collection of multi-millionaire millennials.
Instead of treating them like naughty schoolboys, Conte -- a former altar boy and devout Catholic -- promised they would find him honest and compassionate, as long as they followed his demanding regime to the letter.
Crucially, the absence of European fixtures from Chelsea's schedule afforded Conte time to drill his philosophy into his players, with double training sessions including long pattern-of-play exercises.
The revolution really gathered pace once Conte responded to lacklustre defeats against Liverpool and Arsenal in September by switching to his preferred three-man defensive system.
- 'Great men' -
Conte's players were tuned in to such an extent that they seized control of the title race by equalling a single-season top-flight record with 13 successive victories.
"My biggest achievement was that the players gave me availability to work hard on the physical, tactical and video analysis aspects," Conte said.
"When you have these types of changes it's not easy. First, you must find men and then good players. I found great men and then really good players."
Even then, Conte could not rest easy and his wild touchline celebrations were the perfect window into the soul of a ferocious competitor who thinks nothing of waking in the middle of the night to plot another tactical masterstroke.
How could it be any other way for a man who named his daughter Vittoria, Italian for 'victory', and admits he finds it impossible to sleep before and after matches because he is so pumped up with adrenaline?
No longer bombarded by text messages, a favourite motivational method of Mourinho's, Chelsea's stars lapped up Conte's more considered approach.
Keeping a lid on the volatile Costa's emotions is a full-time job, but Conte managed to rein in the Spain striker well enough to ensure his goals kept Chelsea on top.
He deftly eased club legend John Terry out of the first team, all while retaining his backing, and showed his human touch when he granted Willian time in Brazil after the death of his mother and sent him messages of support.
It did not go unnoticed. The revitalised Blues have repaid their manager with a relentless march to the title and Conte can now reflect on how far he has come in such a short time.
"After one year, when you work a lot and you suffer a lot, enjoying but also suffering, if you are able to win and to reach your target then I think the moment of celebration must be fantastic," he said.
© 2017 AFP