Conte’s Man Management and the Chelsea Transformation

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Updated: March 14, 2017

(Getty Images)

Antonio Conte has breathed new life into Chelsea Football Club, taking the Blues back to the top of the Premier League, 10 points clear with 11 matches to play. Although the switch to the 3-4-3 deserves the praise it has received, Chelsea owe much of their revival to Conte’s impeccable man management.

Ahead of the FA Cup quarterfinal defeat of Manchester United, former Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho observed snidely, “I’m not surprised [by the success]. I’m surprised with the way they play…  I’m surprised because I thought they were demanding a different kind of football” (ESPNFC). This simple statement lays bare the stark differences between Mourinho and Conte, between new and old.

Mourinho’s ego is one of bravado and guarded superiority. Conte, however, is different. His ego consists of one thing: the will to win. He demands nothing less, he obsesses over the details, and losses keep him awake at night. This attitude shines through in his man management skills, in his ability to motivate players who were humiliated last year by a historically inept title defense.

In addition to the massively improved performance of players like Eden Hazard and Diego Costa, the man management skills of Conte are evident in how he handles player drama, keeps the bench happy, and uses tactical flexibility to involve as many players as possible.

Handling drama with aplomb

In the middle of January, Diego Costa and Conte were reported to have been involved in a “blazing row,” leading to the striker being dropped for a match against defending champions Leicester City. The rumor mills started to churn immediately, with a big-money move to China seeming inevitable for Chelsea’s leading goal-scorer. Chelsea won that day, and Costa was reinstated for the next Premier League match against Hull City, a comfortable victory in which the Spaniard bagged a goal and laid the rumors to rest with a memorable celebration.

 

(Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

This small episode demonstrates the influence and command Conte has in the dressing room. Last year, Costa was identified as one of the leading voices of dissent against then-boss Jose Mourinho, and his deflated attitude matched his dip in form last season. However, by dropping Costa immediately following a potentially-devastating loss to Tottenham, Conte made it clear that he won’t put up with those kinds of antics—and the players are responding.

Keeping the bench happy

One of the main challenges facing Conte – and indeed, any top-level boss – is the management of an entire squad of players who want to play every minute of every match. Although he has not heavily rotated his squad (only 12 players have more than 1,000 minutes), he has effectively used competition for certain positions to keep his benched stars happy and hungry.

For example, Pedro (18 starts, 6 subs) and Willian (12 starts, 11 subs) often compete for the right winger position opposite Hazard. Although Pedro’s 7 goals and 7 assists this season have earned him the starting spots as of late, Willian has performed at a very high level when given the chance. As seen in the charts below, Willian’s output per 90-minutes is comparable to and, in some cases, better than Pedro’s. Clearly, this is a selection problem that Conte doesn’t mind having.

(Squawka)

Another player who started the season seeing a lot of the bench is Cesc Fàbregas. Like Willian, though, he has taken full advantage of the opportunities he’s been given. In fact, across the 279 minutes he has played as a substitute this season, Cesc has assisted or scored a goal every 55.8 minutes (WhoScored). A testament to Conte’s meritocratic philosophy, Cesc had started three consecutive matches heading into Monday’s FA Cup quarterfinal.

Tactical flexibility give opportunities to youth

Although Conte’s tactical trademark this season has undoubtedly been the switch to the 3-4-3, he has shown himself to be a very flexible in-game tactician. When Chelsea are leading, they’ve been extremely effective at shutting the game down defensively, denying opponents a foothold to get back into the game.

The second half substitutions the Italian made last week against West Ham illustrated this rather nicely. Kurt Zouma was inserted into the right center-back spot, with Azpilicueta replacing Moses as right wing-back. Nemanja Matic, substituted for Pedro, sat alongside Cesc and N’Golo Kanté in center midfield, resulting in a defensively solid 3-5-2 that proved almost impossible to penetrate (save for a last-minute strike by Manuel Lanzini).

Conte’s willingness to utilize tactical systems that best suit his side – rather than the other way around – opens the door for the promising Chelsea youth and fringe players. As in the West Ham game, Zouma has become the first-choice replacement in the back line, and with the recall of Nathan Aké in January, Conte has gained an extremely versatile defender, comfortable as a center-back or wing-back.

Similarly, Nathaniel Chalobah’s versatility makes him suitable for either of the marauding center midfield roles usually filled by Matic or Kanté. Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Ola Aina have not been as fortunate with regards to playing time, but an increasingly large Premier League lead might pave the way for more minutes from these promising young players as we approach the end of the season.

Takeaway

As Andrea Pirlo wrote in his autobiography, “When Conte speaks, his words assault you. They crash through the doors of your mind, often quite violently and settle deep within you.” Conte’s words have clearly settled deep within this Chelsea side, who work tirelessly for him, for each other, and for victory.

 

(All non-cited statistics from www.whoscored.com)

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