WEST BROMWICH, England — In the first year of English soccer’s ‘super coach’ era, one has stood out from the rest.
Chelsea was a huge club drifting and in need of a proper shake-up when Antonio Conte arrived in July, around the time the Premier League’s PR machine was in overdrive about the impending renewal of the Pep Guardiola-Jose Mourinho rivalry up in Manchester.
Conte was bequeathed a deep and talented pool of players at Chelsea, many of whom played central roles in the team’s title triumph in the 2014-15 season. But they badly underperformed last season, finishing in 10th place and with their top players — Eden Hazard, Diego Costa, and Cesc Fabregas among them — lacking motivation and seemingly going through the motions.
Conte, renowned as a strict disciplinarian with a relentless work ethic, got to work immediately.
The practice sessions became more intense. There were strict rules regarding diet and training, starting on the preseason tour to Austria where nuts and berries were new on the menu. There were some major moves in the transfer market, notably bringing in N’Golo Kante and — somewhat surprisingly — a return to the club for former defender David Luiz.
On the field, Chelsea started with three straight wins, with Diego Costa back to his imposing best up front and Hazard a livewire again on the left wing. Two losses, to Liverpool and Arsenal, derailed the team, but Conte reacted with a formation change to a 3-4-3 in late September. Chelsea never looked back.
Eight months later, Chelsea is English champion once again after beating West Bromwich Albion 1-0 on Friday, and Conte is being rightly heralded as one of the world’s top coaches, having put the likes of Mourinho, Guardiola, Arsene Wenger, and Juergen Klopp in the shade.
He deserves all the plaudits he will get.
Conte has exhibited all of the wide-ranging qualities of a top-class manager: Nous in the transfer market; tactical acumen; the ability to spot a problem and make changes; and, perhaps, most clearly of all, re-energizing big-name players like Costa, Hazard, and Nemanja Matic while improving more unheralded ones like Victor Moses, who has been a revelation in his new position of right wing back.
“There isn’t a tiny detail he isn’t aware of,” Luiz said recently. “He’s the type of guy who sees things most people wouldn’t.”
Straddling a two-year spell in charge of Italy, it’s now four straight domestic league titles for Conte, the other three coming at Juventus from 2011-14, when the team once went through a Serie A season unbeaten and collected a record 102 points in one campaign. Now, he is just the fourth manager to win the Premier League in his first season in England.
No wonder his name is being linked with the top jobs in European soccer, from Barcelona — where there will be a vacancy this offseason — to Inter Milan, whose ambitious and rich Chinese owners are reported to have put together a bumper package to entice Conte.
The 47-year-old Conte has two years left on his deal, and while his wife Elisabetta and young daughter Vittoria continue to live in Italy, speculation around his future will swirl.
His technical-area antics have been typically animated — be it high fives with fans or sprints along the touchline after goals — but he is unruffled, often to the point of being dull, in his dealings with the media. He speaks with improving and charming English.
The key to Conte’s success might be his ability to gently reconfigure Chelsea in his own image, without the team losing what have always been its strengths: A solid defense, a powerful midfield, and clinical edge going forward.
Small tactical tinkerings, for example, have given Hazard more freedom and fewer defensive responsibilities as one of the three forwards. A midfield axis of Kante with either Matic or Fabregas gives Chelsea the choice of sitting deep and hitting on the counterattack or taking the game to opponents. Marcos Alonso and Moses have been perfect wing backs.
Guardiola started the season calling Conte a “master tactician” and, midway through it, labeled him “maybe the best” coach in world soccer.
He might just be right.
Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80