How Antonio Conte’s lightbulb moment transformed Chelsea
Italian’s 3-4-3 formation move put Chelsea on path to glory as he quietly overhauled team
Antonio Conte celebrates Chelsea’s third goal during the recent victory over Everton at Goodison Park. Photograph: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
On the website charting his life and career, from a Serie A debut at 16 to 20 caps for Italy and league titles with Juventus as player and manager, Antonio Conte quotes the revered Italian manager Arrigo Sacchi: “Those who don’t know him think he is moody.”
It might sound like Conte is talking about Sacchi. But it is actually the other way round and it is an interesting remark when you think of Conte’s sultry eyes, that wounded look and his soft, vulnerable voice. He could be a moody blue indeed.
Set against that is the memory of a combative midfielder and, today, the sight of a manager with manic touchline behaviour, windmill arms and non-stop cajoling. That’s a different kind of moody – it gets called exuberance.
It’s a contrast but then, as Conte says, “there are two Antonios. Two different people.”
The comment came after Chelsea’s important 3-0 victory at Everton a fortnight ago. Conte knows that personality matters in football, every bit as much as tactics.
“During the game, I know I am an animal,” he continued. “After the game I must be relaxed when we win.”
Put it together and there’s a complex and possibly difficult individual in charge of Chelsea. Yet the consequence after a mere nine months at Stamford Bridge has not been complicated. Conte has done what so few can do either on the pitch or in the dugout: he has made it look simple.
Nothing exemplifies this more than the term 3-4-3. When in future this season comes to be distilled into a soundbite, as inevitably happens – “Jose’s first season at Chelsea”; “Ferguson’s last at United”– this will be known as Conte’s 3-4-3 season.
It is a tribute of sorts but such an encapsulation omits so much.
It begins last September. Chelsea were 3-0 down at Arsenal after 40 minutes and Conte was presiding over a defence which he would have considered un-Italian.
He had been in charge for just seven Chelsea games at that moment. Unveiled at Stamford Bridge on July 14th having been Italy manager at Euro 2016 until elimination (on penalties) by Germany on July 2nd, Conte was rushing.
On entering Arsenal’s away dressing room, he paused for thought. It is, deliberately, a smaller and less bright room than the home version. Here, it is said, came Conte’s 3-4-3 lightbulb moment.
There’s some truth in this. But it wasn’t just the first half at Arsenal that troubled the 47-year-old. This was the culmination of a 14-day period in which Chelsea played four times and conceded nine goals. They drew at Swansea with a late equaliser from Diego Costa, they lost at home to Liverpool. Now, trailing 3-0 to Arsenal, Chelsea were dropping to eighth in the table, eight points behind runaway Manchester City. Something had to change.
The 3-4-3 system was one he had used before – the Barzagli-Bonucci-Chiellini defence which has guided Juventus to the Champions League final was Conte’s when he was was Juve manager from 2011-14. It was again with Italy last summer.
Ten minutes into the second half, Conte turned his back four into a back three. There was no direct substitution of the two men but in effect the 25-year-old left-sided Marcos Alonso was in the process of replacing the 32-year-old Branislav Ivanovic.
Ivanovic was part of a back four with Gary Cahill, David Luiz and Cesar Azpilicueta. But after Arsenal Ivanovic did not start a Premier League match again under Conte. A Chelsea stalwart of over 300 appearances and nine years at Stamford Bridge, Ivanovic departed for Zenit St Petersburg in January.
That was shortly after John Obi Mikel left for China, the same destination for Oscar, who had started in the draw at Swansea and the defeat by Liverpool. The Brazilian midfielder did not start another league game.
Add the gradual easing aside of John Terry and there are human, political and economic factors – flesh on the bare bones – to Chelsea’s 3-4-3. Oscar, remember, was sold for £60 million (€70.8 million). They’ve gone quietly.
What happened next – at Hull the following week – was that Ivanovic and Oscar sat on the bench watching as Azpilicueta on the right, Luiz in the middle and Cahill on the left made up a back three with Moses-Matic-Kante-Alonso in front of them. Chelsea won 2-0.
It was the first of six consecutive clean sheets in the Premier League, a run of coherent form that not only took Chelsea top, it gave them a grip.
Chelsea were playing with a dynamic rhythm and by early February were nine points clear. Then came Arsenal again, at Stamford Bridge, and Conte returned to the match in September.
“I knew that I had the players for this system,” he said of 3-4-3, “but we’d never tried this solution in our training sessions.
“[But] it’s not as simple to say a change in formation took us to the top. It has taken work.”
Alonso gave Chelsea the lead against Arsenal. They won 3-1. The new manager had looked and learned.
That progress will have brought some personal satisfaction. Conte has written a book: Head, Heart and Legs, and the fact head comes first is significant. He says he does not want to order players, he wants them to understand why he is asking. At the same time Conte is an enthusiastic motivator.
There is also realism: “I always compare my work as a coach to that of a tailor, who makes a suit out of the material available to him.”
Admittedly Conte has some fine materials in west London, but he has cut it right and some of it, he has bought. Alonso, acquired for £22 million (€25.9 million) from Fiorentina, is part of a sweet, balanced style. The previous February, for example, Ivanovic, Terry and Kurt Zouma were in a back four drawing 0-0 at Watford. Cesc Fabregas, Oscar and Mikel were in midfield. This amounts to a quiet overhaul.
N’Golo Kante’s transfer had been negotiated before Conte’s arrival, though presumably he knew of it, given Conte had told the Italian FA in March that he would be leaving. But Alonso and Luiz were Conte purchases.
Luiz has gone from indiscipline to discipline. When asked, he describes Conte as “extremely meticulous”, as if meticulous was insufficient.
Victor Moses, meanwhile, always had the possibility to be exceptional but it is Conte who has drawn it out of a player seemingly destined to spend his career on loan.
Moses says Conte has educated him – “constantly talking to me in training”. Moses also says: “We memorise moves to gel us together.”
This is the hands-on coaching others have referred to, and “very hands-on” is also the term used by a local Italian chef in west London who sometimes has to send Conte photographs of his players’ food. The chef adds the players “love Conte”.
That is due to another factor in Conte’s impact at Stamford Bridge – the concept of equality. It is notable that both Moses and Luiz have mentioned this in the last month. “No favouritism,” says Moses; “one of his [Conte’s]best qualities is that he treats everyone equally,” says Luiz.
Then there was Conte’s challenge to those who said Eden Hazard should be more selfish in front of goal: “The best player in the world doesn’t exist without a team,” was Conte’s reply.
“For me it is sad when I hear one player must be more selfish to reach the top level. This is not my idea of football. I prefer to lose.”
He has not had much experience of that at Chelsea. After last season’s implosion, when Jose Mourinho went, Hazard failed to score for six months, players were branded “rats” by supporters and Chelsea lost 12 games to finish tenth, this season has been unexpectedly serene. It could easily have been different.
Undoubtedly having no European football (like Liverpool) has enabled Conte to coach his way into the club. In quick time he has reshaped the team, revitalised some, moved on others and now has the prospect of a Premier League and FA Cup double.
There is this question mark over Inter Milan’s interest. It was the front page of Gazzetta dello Sport again on Thursday morning and Conte’s wife and daughter have stayed in Turin.
One would expect, however, that a challenging man would like to take his Chelsea into the Champions League. There he could attempt to justify another Sacchi phrase from his website: “Conte is a maestro.”