When it comes to Italian managers, one English club has had more than their fair share. In the Premier League era, Chelsea FC have had four Italian managers. Each have been remembered warmly amongst fans as cult heroes and winners, who between them collected a Premier League title, three FA Cups and a Champions League trophy. All of these managers brought silverware back to Stamford Bridge apart from one notable exception, who is now ironically on course to pull off the greatest title success in Premier League history.
History therefore attests to happy partnerships between Chelsea FC and Italian managers and this perhaps explains why the club are once again turning to Lo Stivale as they look to resurrect themselves from the ashes of a disastrous season. Antonio Conte is the latest manager to step into the Stamford Bridge dugout, with the remit of leading the West London club to silverware and success. Although he possesses an impressive CV which suggests he is up to the task, Chelsea’s new managerial appointment is also a notoriously fiery character who carries a significant amount of baggage with him from his past in Italy. As a current national coach who is embroiled in an ongoing match fixing investigation, one has to wonder following the acrimonious departure of the ever controversial José Mourinho, is Conte the right man to lead the Chelsea revival?
Fans who grew exasperated with Mourinho’s one-man war against the media and confrontational approach towards his players and staff may despair at the news of Chelsea’s appointment. The brief period of tranquillity which Guus Hiddink has brought to the club during his second interim spell will soon be shattered by Conte’s thunderous managerial style. A famous anecdote from the start of his managerial career at Juventus perfectly captures the essence of the Italian’s character in contrast to Hiddink. On his first day at the club, the former Juventus player boldly strode into the dressing room and bluntly told his players “Lads. It’s time we stopped being s***t”. While many Chelsea fans will rejoice at this blunt approach, one wonders how the current squad will respond to his abrasive style of management.
Conte is uncompromising. Across his club managerial spells in Italy, his reigns have been defined by a devotion to subjecting his players to hours of video analysis footage and punishing training sessions, in which he drills his tactical instructions into their heads until they are in no doubt as to what their manager desires. Unable to carry out his frenzied approach due to the long periods of inactivity which international management for Italy entailed, Conte became restless and soon longed for a return to club management. It is likely that his intense approach will not make him the most popular figure among the squad. However with a CV littered with promotions, league titles and trophies to vindicate the success of his methodology, this approach is arguably exactly what Chelsea need following the club’s stagnation this season.
Before any recovery can begin, the squad is need a radical clear out. Players such as John Obi Mikel, Cesc Fàbregas and Oscar are likely to be surplus to requirements, while others who have recently indicated they are unsettled such as Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois will not find a manager who will beg them to stay. Instead it appears Conte would be willing to sell them if it would generate the finance needed to pursue his transfer targets. Even before his appointment, Conte has already outlined moves for the Roma midfield duo of Miralem Pjanić and Radja Nainggolan, Arturo Vidal of Bayern Munich, along with an audacious if somewhat humiliating bid to entice Romelu Lukaku back to Stamford Bridge. Juan Cuadrado is another whom Conte seeks to bring back to Chelsea after the player failed to impress José Mourinho and was consequently farmed out on loan. The winger is still at Juventus as part of that deal and Conte is eager not to lose the player or repeat the same mistakes Chelsea have made recently in selling valuable young talent, as demonstrated by the departures of Kevin De Bruyne and Lukaku.
Another man who Conte appears keen to keep is a man after his own heart, the firebrand Diego Costa. While Costa’s form has undergone a startling renaissance following Mourinho’s departure, the striker is reportedly tired of the reputation he now has amongst referees, players and the media (albeit all of his own doing) and wants a move back to Atlético Madrid. If Chelsea are to be refashioned in their new manager’s image, one would imagine that Costa would be instrumental embodying Conte’s vision for the club.
One thing is for certain; Conte will not conform to the genial stereotypes of previous Italian Chelsea managers; such as the eccentric Gianluca Vialli, the endearing Claudio Ranieri, the relaxed Roberto Di Matteo or the cool Carlo Ancelotti. His rule will be one which is motivated by the qualities which made him such as decorated player and manager. As a man whose playing career saw him acquire five league titles, a Champions League and 20 international caps for Italy, Conte has proven himself to be a winner on and off the pitch. On this basis, this should automatically ensure that the Chelsea players afford Conte the respect he deserves when he takes charge.
Yet despite his strict approach, sheer intensity of character and impressive record, like his predecessor, Conte comes to England with his dark side. The most significant aspect of this would be his ongoing affiliation with Italian match-fixing. Despite his strenuous denial of any involvement, his reputation will never truly be pure in the eyes of football fans and fellow managers due to his association with this sorry investigation.
However what is more likely to antagonise his rivals and the club itself is his outspoken attitude. Much like Mourinho, Conte will not fear to speak his mind when put in front of a microphone and a camera. For a club in dire need of a PR image makeover following Mourinho’s broadsides and deplorable behaviour by a minority of fans, Conte may not be the man who makes Chelsea the darlings of the Premier League in the fashion of Ranieri’s Leicester City.
Even beyond his personality, there is the huge problem of his current role as Italy’s national coach, which will consume a substantial proportion of time to work with his new squad in pre-season. One can only think that the board at Stamford Bridge will be praying for an early group stage exit for Italy so their new appointment can focus on his new job in hand.
Despite these concerns, Chelsea feel they have the right man to lead them out of what is unquestionably the club’s darkest period since the beginning of the Abramovich era. Despite Hiddink’s stabilisation of the club following their shocking fall from grace, the interim manager has failed to guide Chelsea to a consolatory fourth placed finish or any cup glory as he achieved in his previous spell. Now a swift return to the top of the Premier League and the European elite in the Champions League is crucial for the immediate future of the club. At Juventus, Conte revived the Old Lady of Italian Football. Now is the time for him to repeat the trick with the fallen West London giants.
Photograph: Nazionale Calcio via Flickr