Antonio Conte swerved away from any bold promises. The snazzy monikers were for others to pin on him, not for him to offer up, and he did not mention a rival manager by name, other than his friend Claudio Ranieri.
When the comparisons to José Mourinho were put to him he merely acknowledged that “some coaches have a winning mentality but not everyone has it in them”. The implication was both are blessed, though his follow-up, that “those who do are, indeed, special”, was about as mischievous as it got.
The Italian offered up only realism as he confronted the considerable task he has taken on at Chelsea. He was emotional, even excited, to have this chance yet conceded those who have discounted his team from mounting a title challenge in the campaign to come would be justified on the evidence of last season’s prolonged traumas. The buzzword was “work”, revisited regularly as “the only verb I know”. “I’m a worker,” he said. “I like to work, and I know only this road for the club to compete, to return to the Champions League, to get back to winning the title.” It said everything that he had crammed his first public engagement in his new role between gruelling double training sessions at Cobham.
This was an impressive bow from the eighth permanent managerial appointment of the Roman Abramovich era. Conte was clapped on to the podium in Stamford Bridge’s Harris Suite by the chairman, Bruce Buck, the technical director, Michael Emenalo, and Christian Purslow, Chelsea’s head of global commercial activities, and held court for a little over three-quarters of an hour, an interpreter sitting redundant at his side until the latter stages when the Italian media rattled off their own questions. The translator was not required at all in the two newspaper briefings which followed, with the 46-year-old’s English hugely impressive. His pledge that his command of the language would improve was unnecessary.
His compatriots in the audience warned this performance may not end up being considered the norm, and that the firebrand witnessed on the touchline at Euro 2016 would surface soon enough. But, as a first impression, it boded well. He will have appeased some fans by admitting he had played his part in John Terry being offered a new one-year deal in May, and doffed his cap to the politics by pointing out that, “when he plays, when he doesn’t play, he is always the captain”. He also conceded a squad bolstered only by the arrival of Michy Batschuayi, for an initial £33.2m, needed strengthening, though the message was one of reassurance rather than concern. “We know this club – the team – needs to reinforce,” he said. “I am sure that, in the coming days, we can reinforce the team to go closer to the others who seem to be higher in the table compared to Chelsea.
“Leicester City must give us a great example. You can have the best talent, the best champion [players], but you must also have a good spirit in your team, a team with good organisation and good players. If you have all of those things, you can win. You can reach your target. I am sure about this. And in the coming days we can buy one, two, three – I don’t know – more players. Players who can reinforce us for the season as it will be very tough. But maybe we are underrated a bit, and might slip under the radar. I hope there’s a small flame flickering here that can hopefully grow into a blazing inferno.”
A bid worth an initial £27m has been lodged with Leicester for N’Golo Kanté, and interest is retained in Real Madrid’s Álvaro Morata and Radja Nainggolan at Roma. Chelsea would appear a more fiery prospect with those players added to the ranks.
The nod to the champions was notable. A year ago, Chelsea aspiring to be more like Leicester would have been unthinkable. Yet, these days, an entire division is attempting to emulate Ranieri’s achievements, even if Conte’s immediate priority is apparently to implement a philosophy rather than fret about results. “I’m not afraid of the club sacking me. It’s not the most important thing for me now. The most important thing is to work, to give an identity to my team, to bring my idea of football, to bring my passion, my work. To transfer my passion to my players and then to the fans. These are more important now than to win.
“It’s right that the club must evaluate the work during the season. For me, I am happy to show my work, my methods, my idea of football, my management also. It’s important to show good management when you have a great team with great personality and great players. But that’s the most important thing to me, not to think: ‘If I win I stay, if I don’t win I don’t stay.’
“But the situation is a bit different to when I arrived in Juventus. They hadn’t won the title for many years [nine, given the Calciopoli scandal, until Conte claimed the scudetto in 2012]. Chelsea won it only 12 months ago. So the situation here seems easier, no? I hope it will be.
“But it’s important for me that I don’t change my idea, my philosophy, my methods and management. We want to go back to challenging for the title very soon. We have the talented players to do this. So if we have a greater organisation, a good idea of football and a good strength of team, we can achieve good results at the end of the season. If we will win the title, I don’t know. But to stay there until the end is what me must do.”
Conte spoke with Carlo Ancelotti on Wednesday and received a glowing assessment of the Chelsea ownership, and has been encouraged at Cobham, where a shadow squad devoid of those involved at Euro 2016 and the Copa América reconvened on Monday, by the eagerness he has detected to mount a recovery from last season. They will continue their preparations by departing for a training camp in Austria on Friday.
“Finishing 10th was not a bad season; it was a very, very bad season,” Conte said. “But you can restart and learn from what happened. It is very strange that, one year on, a team who had won the title are out of the Champions League and Europa League. History says that, in the Abramovich era, Chelsea are always in the Champions League. It is important to get back very soon.”
The hard work is already under way.
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