Friday 20 October 2017

Unwavering self-belief makes Conte immune to pressure

Chelsea manager Antonio Conte. Photo: Reuters
Chelsea manager Antonio Conte. Photo: Reuters

Jacob Steinberg

When Antonio Conte said that a manager's job is difficult, for a brief moment it felt necessary to make sure that the Italian was not bending the truth, given how easy he has made everything look at Chelsea. Yet even he is unable to ignore modern football's cut-throat reality, especially after a week that began with Crystal Palace landing another blow in the war on patience by sacking Frank de Boer 77 days after appointing him.

The way to survive in such an unforgiving world, Conte believes, is to keep the faith. "One experience can be positive or negative," he said. "But I don't change my mentality. I don't change my idea of football. This is for sure."

It is almost a year since Conte found himself under intense pressure after Chelsea imploded at Arsenal, losing 3-0 as Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez ran riot at the Emirates. His new side were eight points off first place after six matches and one bookmaker suspended betting on his future. Conte took it all in his stride. "Honestly, I wasn't worried," he said. "I trust in my work. I trust myself, in my methods."

Conte has not forgotten about the betting company. It was a trivial affair in the grand scheme of things, of course, but it was a testing time for the former Juventus manager and the way he laughed in the face of adversity has come to define him. Instead of sparking a crisis, the defeat by Arsenal brought out the best in Chelsea, who swept to the title after the inspired switch to a back three.

According to Conte, a manager must be happy when he goes home knowing that "you have given 120 per cent". Yet he was not exactly dripping with positivity at the start of this season. It was a trying summer, dominated by several frustrations in the transfer market and the maddening Diego Costa saga, and Conte's determination to avoid what he refers to as a "Mourinho season" looked under threat when the champions opened their title defence with a chaotic 3-2 home defeat by Burnley, defending atrociously and finishing with nine men after red cards to Gary Cahill and Cesc Fabregas.

This afternoon, however, Chelsea host Arsenal after four consecutive wins in all competitions. New signings are starting to settle. Cahill and Fabregas are available again. Costa's replacement, Alvaro Morata, is scoring and Eden Hazard is back from injury. The atmosphere is calmer and Chelsea's form is starting to feel ominous.

Conte, who has been battling a sore throat, was not surprised by the reaction to the Burnley debacle. "Every coach must be used to hearing these voices," he said. "But every coach has to be focused on the work, continue to work every day. Only through work you can improve your team and stay for many years."

How does he ignore the outside noise? He thought back to his first job at Arezzo. The Serie B side sacked him after three months. "They brought in Maurizio Sarri and then they recalled me," Conte said. "In that period the problem wasn't the coach."

Conte is not daunted by hard work. He loves to improve his players on the training ground, and plenty of Chelsea's have benefited from his coaching. Tiemoue Bakayako, for instance, arrived from Monaco with a big reputation but Conte believes the 23-year-old midfielder, who scored his first goal in Tuesday's 6-0 home win against Qarabag in the Champions League, can get better.

"He's working very well and needs a bit more time than other players to understand our style," Conte said. "If you are a midfielder, you need time to understand the right position. We try to play with an identity and, if you want to give an identity to your team, every single player needs to know your idea. In the last 10 days he improved a lot in the tactical aspect, also in the physical aspect."

With N'Golo Kante certain to start in midfield, Conte will choose between Bakayoko and Fabregas this afternoon. He is impressed with Bakayoko's physical attributes but he is determined to refine his ability in possession.

"He's very close to being totally involved in our idea of football," Conte said. "He can improve a lot with the ball. We are working about this aspect. We did the same with N'Golo when he arrived here. He was very good without the ball, to win the ball, to recover the ball. Now I think you can see a complete player with the ball, without the ball. We want to work in the same way with Baka."

So far Conte's players have bought into his methods, feeding off his enthusiasm, finding the motivation to go the extra mile for their manager. None of it would be possible if he did not believe in himself.

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