For the Joy of the Game
Antonio Conte guides Chelsea to the 2016-17 Premier League title
Last August, soccer fans and media were abuzz about the 2016-17 English Premier League season. It was billed as the most wide-open season in Premier League history, with as many as seven teams viewed to have a shot at the title (usually it’s two or three). It was supposed to be an epic ride that would likely go down to the final day.
Chelsea was certainly viewed as one of the contenders, though it had its share of uncertainty. Its new manager, Antonio Conte, had a record of success but had never coached in England before. It had an impressive squad of players, but many had question marks: Diego Costa? Talented, but combative and a distraction. Eden Hazard? A great player who had disappeared the previous year. John Terry? Too old. Cesc Fabregas? Too slow. David Luiz (aka “Sideshow Bob”)? Come on. With the exception of N’Golo Kante, this was largely the same squad that had finished the previous year a disappointing 10th in the league.
The season started out well enough for Conte and Chelsea, but then hit a rough patch with a disappointing draw at Swansea, a home defeat to Liverpool and then a shocking 3-0 loss at Arsenal. But unlike the previous season, when former coach Jose Mourinho started pointing fingers and the team slumped, Conte got to work. He tweaked tactics and refocused the team, trusting his gut rather than trying to fit into the league. It worked, and how: Chelsea ran off 13 straight victories (tying the record for consecutive wins in a season). At the same time, the other contenders were falling away. Man City was erratic, ManU not talented enough, Tottenham too young, Liverpool too injured, Leicester was, in fact, a one-hit wonder and Arsenal was, well, Arsenal.
By New Year’s Day, Chelsea was in front by a surprising 6 points. And that was really it for the drama of the season. Despite a late push from Tottenham, this was Chelsea’s title and no one else was really close. The promised drama had resulted in a months-long march towards inevitability.
So what made the difference this year for Chelsea? Certainly, the performance of some veteran players was much improved and they were fortunate with regards to injuries. The defense was more solid than expected, largely due to the tireless effort of N’Golo Kante, who won league player of the year. The switch to a 3-man defense was key (and is being widely copied throughout the league as the “it” formation).
But it was Conte and his emotion that seemed to propel Chelsea to the title. What most will remember from this season will not be the goals and individual moments of brilliance on the pitch, but rather the indelible images of Antonio Conte on the sideline, cajoling, pushing, almost willing his squad to victory each week. Conte’s emotion is not same as the brooding of Mourinho, nor is it the intensity of Alex Ferguson. His emotion is one of joy…something to be relished by Chelsea supporters, and envied by the rest of the league.