Sunday 22 September 2019

Chasing pack need to find answers to Conte questions

As a coach, Conte made a fortress of Juventus, winning three straight titles before re-animating Italy in last summer's European Championships. Photo credit: Adam Davy/PA Wire.
As a coach, Conte made a fortress of Juventus, winning three straight titles before re-animating Italy in last summer's European Championships. Photo credit: Adam Davy/PA Wire.

James Lawton

For once maybe it is not too soon to ask what we want from a Premier League season - especially one obliged to put something of value in place of the romance and humanity of Claudio Ranieri's triumph last spring.

The short but unequivocal answer must be pretty much what we have already seen. The main priorities, surely, have already been delivered.

We want someone to set a superior standard of passion and tactical nous. Tick this box against the name of Ranieri's compatriot Antonio Conte.

We want to know that there are coaches and teams who may just be equipped to live in the heat his Chelsea have generated since they were taken apart and put together again a month into the season.

Step forward Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool and, maybe, Pep Guardiola at Manchester City.

We want players who have proclaimed deep and influential qualities of pride and commitment. Take your pick from Diego Costa, Eden Hazard, Sadio Mane, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and, when his head has cleared, Sergio Aguero.

Most of all, we want to be intrigued by the questions dominating the briefest of Christmas pauses which ends today. It is an extensive list and at the top of it is the one concerning the manager of Chelsea.

Can Conte last the course?

There is a whole raft of reasons to say yes. As a player and a coach he has passed every test of nerve and consistency.

He won five Serie A titles and the Champions League as a central midfielder for Juventus, a hard-headed pro supporting the majestic skills of such as Zinedine Zidane and Roberto Baggio. He won 20 caps with Italy.

As a coach, he made a fortress of Juventus, winning three straight titles before re-animating Italy in last summer's European Championships.

His players at Stamford Bridge, so disaffected under the broken regime of Jose Mourinho, plainly adore him.

In this he has matched, if not surpassed, the extraordinary rapport Klopp enjoyed with his players at Borussia Dortmund.

That was regularly announced in the touchline embraces the German exchanged with such stars as Robert Lewandowksi and Mario Gotze.

It was an act difficult to upstage but Conte now regularly manages the feat in the arms of the once-glowering Costa. What's in a hug?

Something or nothing, you might say, but for the moment this one is standing the test of time.

Costa, and Hazard, were hell-bent on the first exit from West London before Conte arrived. The transformation is stunning.

Who can catch Conte?

It says everything about his work so far this season that it has presented both the best-placed contenders, Klopp and Guardiola, with arguably the most pivotal challenges of their magnificent careers.

The morale of both has been significantly restored in the last few days, Klopp's with the resolute victory at Goodison Park and Guardiola's with some brilliant tactical adjustments in the vital, life-giving win over Arsenal.

The ground beneath both was shifting dangerously and Guardiola's relief was especially profound.

He is still some way from the equilibrium he enjoyed at the peak of his success in Barcelona but the triumph over Arsenal was a reminder, to his critics and perhaps even himself that an unprecedented reputation for tactical genius is not the kind of thing you lose overnight.

Still, inevitably Guardiola will be subject to fierce new examination, and not least his previously latent tendency towards excitability and sarcasm. Some defensive strengthening in the transfer window would certainly help his cause.

And what chance of Arsene Wenger having a say which isn't filled with the angst that sometimes seems inseparable from the weight of a persecution complex?

The odds have rarely been longer. It leaves, probably, the most viable challenge to Chelsea in the hands of the volatile but impressively impassioned Klopp.

He, like Conte, has plainly won the dressing room. He has injected levels of belief and imagination last seen at Anfield in the days of Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley.

Are Liverpool at full circle? It cannot be discounted as the story of an exceptional season.

Did we write off the special one too soon?

The evidence was building against him with a growing force but only the churlish can deny the impact of his recent work at Old Trafford. Mourinho was not excessively mourned at Real Madrid and was driven out of Chelsea just months after winning his third title there. When he lectured Conte, absurdly, on the Chelsea touchline for whipping up fans at the end of the 4-0 victory over United, he looked like a man thrashing at an unfamiliar depth of frustration.

Yet whatever the outcome of his first United campaign, there is no hardship, surely, in saluting one easily-measured achievement. It is that he has managed to do something utterly beyond the powers of the renowned Louis van Gaal. He has begun to make United look a little like the team they used to be. There are stirrings of life, a hint of new direction and fresh horizons.

It seems a long time since Mourinho said he was the star of his own movie. Maybe, who knows, it might just be time for a re-run.

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