Antonio Conte reacts to his Chelsea players being caught on camera around the world during days off
Antonio Conte has admitted that Chelsea are exceeding even his own expectations this season but has also reminded the rest of the Premier League that his squad know how to finish the job.
Chelsea won the league on all four previous occasions that they led at Christmas, while nine of the past 12 leaders at this stage of the season – including Leicester City last year – have also gone on to be champions.
Conte inherited a squad who finished only 10th last season but yesterday he made a point both of flagging up his own experience of winning three Serie A titles at Juventus and also Chelsea’s vast previous success.
“Not one person thought or forecast that Chelsea would stay top of the table, for many reasons,” he said. “Because the squad was the same as last season’s. Because our market wasn’t a great market. I think we found the right balance. But now we are only two games away from halfway through the season. So, for this reason, we must have the right pressure. These players, in the past, have had the habit of staying top of the table.
“I don’t trust the people when they say, ‘There’s pressure when you’re top’. I prefer the pressure of being top of the table. We earned this position. Now it’s important to keep it. It’s not the first time for me or my players.”
Indeed, the core of the squad who won the Premier League title in May 2015 remains intact and has been strengthened by the arrival of N’golo Kanté, who was critical to Leicester’s fairy-tale success.
Chelsea have a six-point lead over Liverpool following a record-breaking sequence of 11 straight wins since Conte switched to playing his three-man central defence. Conte, though, will be without Kanté and Diego Costa, who are both suspended, against Bournemouth on Boxing Day and, while Michy Batshuayi is expected to start that game, the manager said that another change of system was possible.
“We showed in the past we could play with different formations,” he said. “It can be an option. We are working to find the right solution.”
The Chelsea players were all given three days off earlier this week following a sequence of three matches in six days and, while Conte was relaxed about seeing them photographed in various locations around the world, he has told them to ignore league position.
“When you give three days off, you don’t know the destination of your players,” he said. “But I think the most important thing was to recover, not only with your body but, above all, with your head. I prefer not to look at the table at this moment. Either me or the players. It’s not important. We can look at the end of the season and see where we are. Then it’s important.”
But does Chelsea’s new status as favourites create an added burden? “I prefer to be favourites on the pitch; not with words,” Conte said. “You can change who is favourites very quickly with words.”
Frank Lampard was among the visitors to Chelsea’s training base on Wednesday but, despite the vacancy that has been created by assistant manager Steve Holland leaving to join Gareth Southgate’s England staff at the end of the season, Conte said he believed that the club’s record goalscorer was focused on prolonging his playing career.
“Steve is a very good professional and is helping me a lot,” he said. “It’s a pity to lose him but, also, I can understand his choice. This type of situation can arrive only once in life; to be a coach or assistant coach of your national team and your country.”
Of Lampard, Conte said: “It was very nice to see him. He’s a legend for this club and it’s fantastic when he comes to see the training sessions, to talk with us and stay with former team-mates.”
Could Lampard pursue a career in coaching? “We didn’t talk about this,” Conte said. “I think Frank wants to continue to play football, and I repeat: I saw him in good form, in good shape, to continue to play football. Then, for his future, it’s better to ask him.”