Smartphone video footage of Antonio Conte’s emotional outbursts from the Chelsea sideline this season has become its own YouTube cottage industry. He lays claim as the most animated manager in recent Premier League history, orchestrating every defensive maneuver and passing sequence with flailing arms and stamping movements. In Conte’s world, every moment and every individual becomes a prop for the larger team. He possesses a special understanding with his assistants - or rather, his assistants have an understanding - as they become secondary characters of his momentary exuberance. Conte has expressed regret for his sideline antics, but makes no apologies for his passion.
While appropriately nicknamed “The Hammer” for his insistence that his players “eat grass” or “come off the pitch spitting blood”, the name belies the cerebral side of his approach. If there is a halfway word between his nickname and a conductor, it would be Conte. He trains his sides in repetitive, attacking movements - hence his orchestrating style. One could see these rehearsals as limiting, especially in a sport where the intuition is not only celebrated but the x-factor that separates great from good. There is also a theory that true creativity arises from constraints. Emanuele Giaccherini’s goal against Belgium in the European Championship last summer showed the effectiveness of rehearsed movements. Featuring a long ball from Leonardo Bonucci, the move was direct, incisive, and clinical.
The goal also showed one way in which Conte builds attacks, and another reason why the shift to a three defender backline this season unlocked his Chelsea side both on and off the ball. At Juventus, he had Andrea Pirlo. With Italy, it was Bonucci. Currently, David Luiz takes the reigns. The shift in formation accentuated the Brazilian’s passing ability in the build up phase while giving him two center backs for cover as he roams across the pitch. The move to two center midfielders allowed Nemanja Matic and N’Golo Kante roam and destroy as necessary. It also set up for another of Conte’s favorite training ground moves: Pedro and Hazard drop short to attract their opposing fullback markers, which opens up space for wingers Marco Alonso and Victor Moses to exploit for a cross. The 3-4-3 formation freed Chelsea players to use their physical ability to eat grass. This idea of freedom is unique to Conte.
His Italian side in the European Championship was criticized as being full of functional players devoid of a Alessandro Del Piero or Francesco Totti quality playmaker. But again, this is exactly where Conte’s rehearsed movements could take on their full impact as they overachieved to reach the semifinals. He admits he enjoys managing less gifted but dedicated players, like himself, who accentuate the team. The 2-0 win against Belgium highlighted this skill, as their opponents were filled with individual players but lacked in functional ones who’d eat the requisite grass. We saw how far a Conte side with limited talent can go as Italy lost to Germany in the quarterfinals. But add to that foundation a creative player who also sacrifices for the team in his own way, and then Conte’s vision translates into trophies.
Manchester United midfielder Ander Herrera paid the price with his second foul on Eden Hazard for Phil Jones’ three previous fouls on the Chelsea playmaker by receiving a red card in the first half of an FA Cup match in March. When the two sides met in a league match a month later, Herrera man-marked Hazard as United won 2-0. The tactic was another example of Jose Mourinho’s ability to get results by denying the focal point of an opposing attack.
The viral stat of March was Hazard successfully taking on more defenders than Messi since 2014. Dribbling can signal a selfish player in contrast to 10 second clips of a team playing its way out of a press with one touch passes. There are no team or moral lessons to expound upon in a dribbler beating a defender. But in relating back to Chelsea functioning, Hazard’s ability to receive the ball in between the lines and dribble at defenders is vital in launching counter attacks.
On the other side of Hazard, we see why Conte rates Pedro so highly within the larger scheme even though the Belgium is much more individually talented. Not to say Pedro doesn’t have his moments of magic. He’s chipped in with seven goals in league play, but his movement, dribbling ability, and occasional goal is a cog that makes his side function. The Spanish winger is a symbol of Chelsea’s cohesiveness in contrast to Barcelona becoming increasingly reliant on the individual brilliance of its front three to get results. Michy Batshuayi is another example of the balance between individual talent and the talent to make a team work. The $42 million transfer has scored just one goal in 17 league appearances as Chelsea change to a 442 to accommodate his skill next to Costa. Batshuayi will find his place somewhere in Europe, but whether he developes into a Conte player remains to be seen.
The most optimistic supporter could not have seen the production from Pedro this season, especially as a replacement for Willian’s free kick ability in the starting eleven. When the Spanish winger joined Chelsea two years ago, he was seen as dispensable for lacking Messi, Neymar, and Luis Suarez’s ability to change a game by themselves. But it’s this disciplined style that makes him a perfect balance to Hazard cutting in from the opposite wing and Victor Moses finding space on his right side. Conte praised the quality of his off-ball movement and pressing ability, along with the new formation, for unlocking the real Pedro. In Conte’s world, the system empowers players willing to sacrifice for the team.
The Italian has overachieved in his first season at Chelsea, but there remains doubts to how far he can take his sides in Europe. This is specifically aimed at whether a three defender backline is as effective in the Champions League as it is domestically; it was a hurdle his Juventus sides never overcame. This difference is even starker as Max Allegri made his second European final with the Italian club this week. But if Conte doesn’t adjust to that competition next season, it shouldn’t be seen as a lack of tactical nous or underlying weakness. For supporters, it’s either the emotional, orchestrating, sideline madness, or nothing at all.