In the second instalment of our three-part series this week, Bleacher Report speaks to former Chelsea players as we assess Antonio Conte’s early impact at Stamford Bridge…
Football players are unique beasts. Some can be temperamental, others more placid in their approach as they go about their business. Ultimately, though, it’s they who hold the cards for how successful any manager is.
Given how Chelsea struggled last season, the topic many focused on was the relationship between Jose Mourinho and those who occupied the Stamford Bridge dressing room. Did he lose the faith of his players before eventually being sacked? Were individuals rebelling against him?
Whatever happened, things are beginning to feel different under Antonio Conte now. Chelsea are winning more matches, and we’re seeing players smiling once again. The harmony has returned.
So what do some of Chelsea’s former players think of the new boss now that he’s had time to settle? Have they been impressed by what they’ve seen? Would they want to play for Conte?
Bleacher Report spoke to ex-Chelsea winger Pat Nevin, former Blues defender Jason Cundy and Ron Harris, who is one of the club’s greatest servants after carving out a fearsome reputation in the 1960s and 1970s when he made a record 795 appearances.
The changing man
Diego Costa and Victor Moses have been success stories under Conte.
Conte has made a big impression early on in his Chelsea career. The formation has changed for one, and players are being utilised in different systems. It’s meant the mood around the club has become more positive. What has impressed most about the boss?
PN: His adaptability; the fact that he’s learned really quickly about the capabilities of his players and then got them into a system that’s working. Something we forget about, especially fans of a team, is that they actually know more about the players than a new manager does as they’ve been watching them every week. Conte wouldn’t have known this team like the Chelsea fans did, and sometimes it can take a manager time to get it.
Number one, he learned about the capabilities of his players incredibly quickly. Number two, he learned things about his players that we didn’t know, just as quickly. We didn’t think about Victor Moses the way Conte has, and now we’re watching him just thinking “wow!”
I have to say as well, going into the 3-4-3, it never crossed my mind that [Cesar] Azpilicueta would play as the right centre-back, especially when there’s [Branislav] Ivanovic and others available. To do incredibly well as he has, has impressed me.
JC: Managers earn their money as much by picking players and training with them as they do their in-game management while it’s going on. The way he changed the system at half-time against Arsenal, when Chelsea then didn’t concede a goal, that was something he has worked on and built on since then. To do that during a game tells me that he knows what his system is now.
He’s always wanted to change to a back three, but he’s had his hands tied because of [Kurt] Zouma’s injury and he also didn’t get the targets he wanted in the transfer market. He recognised the problems against Arsenal and his work on the training ground tells me that he’s a brilliant coach.
To get that message across, to have the impact that it’s had in the short time he has been at Chelsea, goes a long way in proving that. For it to look as brilliant as it has tells me he knows what he’s doing.
RH: It’s early days, but ahead of the international break, Chelsea were top of the table until Liverpool’s win over Watford. Conte’s done ever so well, although I’m sure he will say there’s a long way to go in the season and title race.
I think for a manager who has been at Chelsea for such a short space of time, it’s excellent what he has achieved so far.
The early bird
Chelsea’s 5-0 thrashing of Everton has been celebrated as one of the club’s best performances in years.
Given the problems Chelsea faced this summer and how fractured the club appeared on the surface, is it a surprise that Conte has made such a rapid improvement?
PN: I’m not getting carried away with it just now, but it’s been pretty spectacular since the Hull City game. But, I don’t say this lightly; I haven’t seen Chelsea play the sort of football they did against Everton in a very long time. It was only one game and the Manchester United game was good as well, but I was absolutely stunned by it.
If Barcelona, Bayern Munich or Real Madrid played like that, we would still praise it. I really was stunned by how good it was against Everton. In summary, though, I am surprised by how good it’s been this early for Conte.
JC: Conte has made some mistakes, but he’s putting them right. He made mistakes against Arsenal and Liverpool, yet he’s worked through it. I really wasn’t sure what he was trying to do against Arsenal, especially with [N’Golo] Kante playing so deep, picking the ball up off the defence. Look at him now—he’s playing 20 yards further forward.
Chelsea are now a completely different side from that game. I’d love to see them play Liverpool and Arsenal now as they wouldn’t lose those games. The nine-point swing against Manchester City, too, has been remarkable.
RH: I haven’t been surprised by the early formation change and how Conte’s altered the system. The three-man defence is common in Italy, and he’s deployed that himself wherever he has been.
The big part of it is that he’s getting the best out of the big players such as Eden Hazard and Diego Costa. We all know how they disappointed last year, but under the new manager, they are looking like the players we know.
[Nemanja] Matic is another one, as is Pedro, who wasn’t a regular last year. Victor Moses has been a big surprise and the manager deserves credit for how he’s got these players playing now. Chelsea steadied the ship at the back end of the last season and now he’s taking it on.
The look of a champion
Conte has shown a big presence on the touchline.
From sitting in eighth place at the end of September, Chelsea have turned things around dramatically. Now the Blues are second, just one point behind Liverpool at the top. Can we take them seriously as title contenders?
PN: The first few weeks of the season, Manchester City were going to canter all the way to the title without losing; or so we thought. We’ve watched Arsenal and thought they were fantastic; Liverpool have been spellbinding, too. So with those teams, are Chelsea going to be challenging them? Absolutely.
The past weeks have upped the expectation. I was asked before the season started if Chelsea would have a chance of winning the title and I said they wouldn’t—unless they bought a left-back and a centre-back. They’ve signed David Luiz and Marcos Alonso, so Conte did what I thought they should have done and they’re looking stronger for it. They’re going to be there.
JC: I didn’t expect Chelsea to be where they are now. It’s been quicker than I ever imagined. I’m a former player, but I also support the club, and I had a few scars from last season.
I couldn’t believe the title was a possibility, but after the Everton game, I genuinely believe we can win the title now. Up to that point, I thought we’d be in a battle for fourth, fifth or sixth; I didn’t expect it be like it is, but here they are.
RH: It’s nice to be in Europe, so I think that will be Chelsea’s aim still; for now, at least. If they’re in a good position come January, we can expect they may dip back into the market to really strengthen and add some depth for the second half of the campaign.
Given the way they’re playing, Chelsea are up the top of the table on merit, so it’s not going over the top to suggest they can be champions. They’re scoring a lot of goals now and they’re not conceding—that’s the basics for a team that has aspirations of winning things. Kurt Zouma is getting back to fitness now, too, so Conte is getting more options.
David Luiz has proved a shrewd signing by Conte.
Far from the clear out we were expecting at Stamford Bridge this summer, Conte has been more measured with his regeneration of the squad. Did he buy well in the transfer market?
PN: I’ve never budged in my thinking that David Luiz is one of the best players on the planet and has been for quite some time. There aren’t many people who agree with me; I’m beginning to think Conte might because of what he’s managed to get out of him.
I’ve always been of the belief that his capabilities are pretty damn special, and we’re seeing it at the moment. Centre-backs don’t get to be any good until their late-20s; they’re average before that as they have a lot to learn and every mistake they make shows up. Luiz has everything you need to be an absolutely wonderful centre-back, and at the moment, he’s been fantastic, which is all down to Conte for seeing that.
JC: I wouldn’t have brought Luiz back to the club as Chelsea were playing a back four then. There are weaknesses in his game that means he struggles in a four, but in the three, he is brilliant. He was born to play that role, and the manager is getting the best out of him.
Conte needed a left-back, so Alonso was positive in that regard. Because his signing was so late in the transfer window, you sort of feel that he wasn’t exactly what the club was after, but they took him anyway.
Victor Moses must be mentioned also, as bringing him back in after three loan spells has been like signing a new player. That trio of players has been brilliant; everyone has played their part.
RH: You’ve only got to look at where Chelsea are in the table right now to see that they have bought well this summer. They’re back fighting at the top of the table and the new signings they made—David Luiz, N’Golo Kante and Marcos Alonso—are all playing matches and contributing to what the team is achieving right now.
The players’ manager
Chelsea players are loving life under Conte right now.
Now that Chelsea fans are back to seeing the likes of Eden Hazard returning to his best, it says much for Conte’s methods and player management. His passion on the sidelines also gets fans and pundits excited. Would any former Blues want to play under him?
PN: I’d specify it to the fact that I played in similar positions to where we’re seeing Pedro and Eden Hazard now. In simple terms, I usually played in a 4-3-3 or 4-4-2 and the wider attacker in those systems has to work his socks off to cover the full-back. I never complained about it, but it did take something out of me.
Now, if you’re Hazard in the 3-4-3, you have a left centre-back and left wing-back behind you. It means that you’re probably 30 or 40 yards further up the field. If any manager said to me that I was going to get the ball higher up the pitch and then I could go and do what I like with it because he trusted me, then yeah, I would quite like that.
If a manager trusts in you and allows you to make mistakes, manipulating the system further up the field to your benefit, of course you’re going to enjoy it. Hazard used to get the ball quite deep; look at where he gets the ball now. It’s usually him and just one defender in front of him, and that allows him to go and attack. It’s a joy to play for a manager who knows your strengths and uses them.
JC: Oh gosh, yes would I like to play for him! I can only imagine what it would be like. This team finished in mid-table last season, and deservedly so. There was a massive drop off in form from so many key players—I had never seen anything like it in football—that to get them back to their best level again within 10 or 11 games is incredible; it all comes down to the manager.
Conte is turning out better than I thought he would be. To play for a manager who coaches you properly from Monday to Friday and then inspires at the weekend is what any player wants. Chelsea are incredibly lucky to have Conte at the club.
RH: I would play for any manager for £200,000 a week! But in all seriousness, I played under Tommy Docherty during my time at Chelsea, and he was a manager who let you know where you stood with him; that’s the same with Conte.
All the players know what the manager wants and what their position is at the club. There aren’t any slackers in this team now and he’s got them playing together.
I love watching him on the sidelines. He really shows the passion he has for the football club. Some may think he goes over the top at times, but you can’t knock him as things are going ever so well. I hope he continues dancing up and down the touchline, celebrating goals going in and Chelsea winning matches.