Can Conte be the catalyst to steer Chelsea through tough PL start?


Holly Thackeray | July 15, 2016

Baptism of fire for new Blues boss Conte

New Chelsea coach Antonio Conte was not kidding when he told press in his first Stamford Bridge press conference: “The Premier League is very difficult – the most difficult in the world. Seven teams can win the title.”

And the ex-Italy and Juventus tactician will not be allowed to ease himself in to the dugout demands of England, as a gaggle of his opening 10 games in charge of the capital club sees the manager pitted against a fair few from those seven teams.

Chelsea’s opening 10 Premier League games

  • West Ham United (H); Monday, August 15th; 20:00
  • Watford (A); Saturday, August 20th; 15:00
  • Burnley (H); Saturday, August 27th; 15:00
  • Swansea City (A); Sunday, September 11th; 16:00
  • Liverpool (H); Friday, September 16th; 20:00
  • Arsenal (A); Saturday, September 24th: 17:30
  • Hull City (A); Saturday, October 1st; 15:00
  • Leicester City (H); Saturday, October 15th; 15:00
  • Manchester United (H); Saturday, October 22nd; 15:00
  • Southampton (A); Saturday, October 29th; 15:00
  • All fixtures are subject to change because of potential TV coverage

Starts to the season don’t get much tougher than this, and Chelsea are 11/8 with Coral to finish a second successive season outside the top four.

The Blues must navigate not only the challenges that arrive with a new boss and summer signings, but also a real baptism of fire for the side which conceded their Premier League crown last term by finishing an astounding 10th – one of the worst modern era title defences.

In their first 10 league matches of this term, Conte’s new-look Chelsea must host an impressive and attacking West Ham on the opening weekend – a team which finished three places above and held them to a draw at home after beating the Blues at Upton Park.

Stubborn Watford away are up next after also forcing a duo of draws last season, followed by slightly easier on paper fixtures versus Swansea (though they took four points off Chelsea in the previous season) and new boys Burnley.

Following that is a clash with foes Liverpool at Stamford Bridge – a duel that always brings drama – and then a tough trip to the Emirates to face last season’s Premier League runners-up Arsenal and Hull City at the KC Stadium.

The tricky streak of 10 then draws to a close against defending champions Leicester City, who also bagged four points off the Blues as they dethroned them, a meeting with former manager Jose Mourinho and Man Utd, and finally a trip to the south coast to see Southampton.

Does Conte have what it takes to run this gauntlet of games in an early stretch that could already come to define the shape of his maiden season?

“A small flame flickering that can turn into a towering inferno”

Conte illustrated plenty of Italian flair and artistry with his wordplay on his maiden meeting with the British media, but the coach was arguably still basking in the confidence of the Azzurri’s excellent performances at Euro 2016.

Conte is currently flavour of the month for steering Italy past the likes of Belgium and Spain, before seeing his spirited side crash out in the quarter-finals to Germany on spot-kicks – much further than many pundits expected pre-tournament.

Still, Chelsea have a real point to prove in the upcoming campaign and, unless their coach’s confidence can rub off, an early defeat could cause a real wobble. But are critics underestimating the Blues? Conte appears to believe so, and it is a tactic the Italian can really work with.

“I think Chelsea are underrated and we can surprise people. I hope there is a small flame flickering that can turn into a towering inferno,” said the 46-year-old, using a rather dramatic dash of imagery.

Parallels can certainly be made with his recent Italy vintage – a collection considered subpar in comparison to previous golden eras, and boasting an ageing defensive unit.

The Azzurri’s chances were widely panned before France, and Conte could use the same criticisms and underdog status to motivate his Blues boys and turn them into a similarly staunch unit.

At the moment, Chelsea are 6/1 fourth favourites with Coral to lift the Premier League title, behind all of Man City, Man Utd and Arsenal, but could they be worth considering?

Can Conte translate methods to Cobham?

After seeing how Conte crafted his Italy squad to be more than the sum of its parts, some punters may indeed be tempted.

Yet there is a huge chasm between international tournaments and Premier League football, and between a short format and long, draining seasons.

All of Gianluigi Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli put in imperious performances for Conte in Italian blue and, before that, in the black and white stripes of Juve during Conte’s successful trophy-laden Turin tenure.

Yet, if Conte casts his eyes around Stamford Bridge, there is not the same quality on hand to build the spine of his side in the same image.

The proof is in the pudding, but captain John Terry and Gary Cahill, Chelsea’s two most-experienced centre backs, look a far cry from the consistent and classy Azzurri performers.

Perhaps Conte can work his magic on the pair, whilst adding extra legs and physical power with a new centre back signing such as Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly in the absence of injured Kurt Zouma. But the coach will have to move quickly to instil the same discipline Italy illustrated to cover for individual deficiencies.

After all, the Italian had a ready made rearguard in France, which he had worked with previously and schooled in his methods and who trained and played together at club level daily even after his Juventus departure.

Such cohesiveness cannot be forged over night, and the Premier League can be a cruel and unforgiving mistress, primed to pounce on any display of weakness – just ask Mourinho.

“The coach is a tailor who must make best dress”

Much speculation about Conte’s arrival is whether the managerial mastermind will attempt to transplant his three at the back tactic to Chelsea – a shape which has had mixed results in England before, most notably and recently for former Man Utd boss Louis van Gaal.

A system which excelled during the 2014 World Cup and was on trend with Van Gaal’s Clockwork Orange as well as dual Copa America champions Chile, was an emphatic flop at Old Trafford. It is also a style oft adopted in Serie A, but Conte is not so stubborn as to persist with an idea that fails to bare fruit as the now ex-Red Devils coach.

Italy’s defence was the strongest squad component – while they missed playmaker Andrea Pirlo and a top-drawer attacker, so it made perfect sense that Conte would continue with three at the back and build from there. With the Blues it may not.

Skipper Terry, now 35, and his fitness levels and ability to adapt as part of a backline trio will be key to any tactical shake-up, something which Conte seemed to hint at as he held court.

“Terry signed a new contract as a player, not in a different role. He is the captain of this team and a great player with a great personality.

“I want to speak to him because he knows the club and the spirit. When he plays he is the captain, when he doesn’t play he is the captain. Always.”

Reading between the lines here, perhaps Terry will get the chance, flanked by two potential partners with younger legs, to utilise his experience.

But Conte is not a coach set on his ways, and Chelsea fans’ potential fears of a slow and porous rearguard should be soothed as the former midfielder added: “The coach is a tailor who must make best dress for team. Three at the back, four at the back, it is not important.”

Expect Blues to be adaptable

So, Stamford Bridge could see a variety of shapes and formations depending how the existing squad and potential new signings adapt – it certainly won’t be dull.

Supporters and neutrals alike hoping to see the kind of quick transitions on the counter, passion, intelligent and well-timed play, plus defensive diligence Conte’s Italy and Old Lady outfits were famed for, should not be disappointed.

“We have started to work on different aspects and every manager has their own idea of football. I want to transfer my idea, my methods,” said Conte.

“I was born with pressure. It’s normal. You must play to win, to win the title, to reach your targets…the fans need to find the team ready to fight.

“The Premier League is tough; it is high intensity compared to other tournaments. If you want to win, you have to play attractive football but also have good physical condition. Usually if you have great organisation and talent with the players, and you run more, you have more productivity to win.”

So, in short, expect energy, order and efficiency to be implemented by the boss born on the heel of Italy’s boot. A true pragmatist, there should be the attacking football owner Roman Abramovich is said to crave, but that should come second to success.

Stamford Bridge signings so far

If Conte is to correctly teach his methods to the club, as mentioned earlier, the existing squad will have to see new arrivals. A centre back of prime age, physicality and ideally able to dictate play is essential if using a defensive trio is to work, or even for the depth to challenge on four fronts with a regular four in the rearguard.

While, the full backs will surely be tested as wing backs, and it will be interesting to see whether attack-minded Juan Cuadrado and Willian are risked wide, or whether the more conservative Caesar Azpilicueta is given the nod.

An all-rounder on the flanks must surely be brought in to allow Conte to adapt his approach, though strengthening central midfield is first on the agenda if tabloids are to be believed.

N’Golo Kante could be on the cards, and the France and Leicester City midfield dynamo would be a perfect fit to press for Conte.

While, the addition of Belgium international centre forward Michy Batshuayi for around £30m hints at the potential potent pairing between the marksman and fellow frontman Diego Costa, in a replica of the effective team work from chosen two up top Eder Citadin Martins and Graziano Pelle at the Euros.

Though Stamford Bridge may not see too many expensive new arrivals, as Conte said, in words that should sum up his diligent and low key approach, that: “You don’t need to take just the champions, you need to take those who can adapt to our football and our philosophy.”


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