Sunday 17 December 2017

Comment - The instant success of Antonio Conte has made Mourinho's legend little more than a memory

 

Conte is proving to be the new 'Special One' as his side strides towards the Italian's first Premier League crown. Photo: Getty Images
Conte is proving to be the new 'Special One' as his side strides towards the Italian's first Premier League crown. Photo: Getty Images

Julian Bennetts

Antonio Conte will arrive at Old Trafford today with a Chelsea team that Jose Mourinho assembled but which he has transformed.

The resurgence of key individuals this season demonstrates why Chelsea's head coach is known in his native Italy as 'un martello' - a hammer.

He never gives his players a moment's respite on the training pitch. His aim? To improve players rather than simply buying them.

As Chelsea close in on his first Premier League title, the fruits of Conte's labour are clear. Victor Moses is no longer permanently out on loan but instead a superb wing-back. Thibaut Courtois is again a dominant presence in goal. And Eden Hazard has recaptured his stunning form of two seasons ago.

But of all the minor miracles Conte has worked during his first season in England, his greatest of all is the transformation of David Luiz, now in his second spell at Stamford Bridge.

He was aware there were doubters when he sanctioned the Brazilian's return from Paris Saint-Germain in a £34m deal last August.

He knew Mourinho had effectively given up on Luiz, offloading him for £50m in 2014. He admits to hearing "a lot of bad things" about the 29-year-old after his shock return. Conte cared not a jot. And, as with everything else this season, he was right.

Eight months later, Conte stands on the verge of a first Premier League title - and Luiz, at the heart of his three-man defence, has been integral to that success. From someone Gary Neville dubbed a "PlayStation footballer" to one of the finest and most disciplined defenders in England, Luiz epitomises the Conte approach.

"I heard a lot of bad things about him [Luiz] when he arrived, and why he was coming back in Chelsea because, in the past, he had performed bad and was 'not a defender'," smiles Conte. "This was a great challenge for him, but also for me. I think when you have great ability for your players, and you can work to try and improve some situations, it's great. His role is a crucial role for us, and I think he has performed very well. But I want him to perform very well for the rest of the season.

"Where did I hear those bad things? I read in the newspapers a lot of bad considerations, saying we had spent a lot of money on him and, in the past, he hadn't been very good as a defender. For this reason, he had played as a midfielder. I heard a lot of these things. But when we decided to buy him, to take him back, we were sure. We were sure we were taking a really good player and put him again as one of the best defenders in Europe and, I hope, in the world."

If Conte was aware of newspaper criticisms of Luiz, then the player would have been, too. At Juventus, Conte highlighted negative comments in articles and pinned them to the dressing room wall, challenging his players to prove the critics wrong.

In days gone by, the 47-year-old would not have struggled to find such 'inspiration' for either Luiz or Hazard. The defining image of Mourinho's final months at Chelsea was the Belgian stalking past him and straight down the tunnel at Leicester's King Power Stadium in December 2015. Hazard was injured, but Mourinho could barely look at the player and would go on to say his work had been "betrayed" by some members of his team in what was his last act at the club.

Hazard, too, cuts a very different figure under Conte. The swagger is back and so is the end product, with Hazard averaging a goal every 173 minutes this season, compared to 547 during the 2015/'16 campaign.

Conte spent much of the pre-season talking to Hazard, rebuilding his confidence and making the decision to play him in a slightly more central role. Now, though, the Italian is more likely to seek him out for private chats after victories rather than defeats: for Conte, the biggest danger is complacency.

There has been no sign of that so far this season and the Belgian's form has been such that the PFA Player of the Year award is seen as a straight fight between him and team-mate N'Golo Kante.

"It's crucial at the start of the season, but also during the season when you understand there is less hunger, less concentration," says Conte of his pep-talks with Hazard. "I don't like to speak about last season because last season was bad for all the players, not only for Eden or other players.

"When you have this type of season, all the people who worked in the club have their responsibilities for the bad season. Not only the players and the coaches, but all the staff.

"Now they are performing very well. You are seeing N'Golo performing, Hazard performing. I'm very pleased for this because my task, and also the task of my staff, is to put every single player in the best situation: physical, tactical, technical, so they can give the best of himself.

"We are doing a great job with the players.

"With or without the ball. Eden is working very well for the team. When we are in ball possession or not. Eden is becoming a complete player, which is great for him."

Great for him, great for Conte, and great for Chelsea. Having rebuilt the men Mourinho discarded, Conte is ready to use them today to take another huge step towards the title.

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