The external decorations outside the ground still depicted giant posters of José Mourinho in his Chelsea blazer holding the Premier League trophy. A boy began to chant for the man currently in charge of Manchester United and his father shushed him a little awkwardly. Inside, the team selection was close to identical to the XI their old leader chose to begin their title defence last August. There was just one change. N’Golo Kanté replaced Cesc Fàbregas but the rest of the starters chimed with familiarity.
Welcome to the new show in town? It felt as if a PA announcement would not have seemed massively out of place: “Today, ladies and gentlemen, the part of José Mourinho will be played by Antonio Conte.” The whole event was intense and committed enough that by the end everyone felt tangled up in a familiar shade of blue.
Here was Chelsea with a success-driven manager backed up by a handsome CV patrolling his technical area with ferocious edge in his sharp suit. On the pitch was that old back four that trips off the tongue. Eden Hazard and Willian shimmered in flashes from wide positions. Diego Costa was booked early for dissent and fortunate not to pick up a red. This was a very subtle kind of revolution.
It might take a while for the Conte era to emerge fully from the Mou shadows. The former Juventus and Italy head honcho may share the hot competitive streak and desire for meticulously organised and tactically disciplined effort but he has more than enough qualities to form a side in his own image given time and a few more tools to his taste to work with.
A place back among the title contenders is in his remit. Nothing less will do for either his personal standards or his club’s. Three points is a welcome start.
Conte has understandable frustrations that he could not add more significantly to the squad he was handed over by the caretaker, Guus Hiddink, after Mourinho was ousted. He is not alone in that among Premier League managers. It meant that the most significant change of tone would be tactical rather than in terms of personnel.
Kanté, the newcomer, was positioned in front of the back four in a 4-1-4-1 formation, covering ground with expected intelligence. It was notable that positionally he stayed quite deep, carefully sitting and protecting with a little less freedom to roam than he had at the King Power Stadium. His secure presence allowed Conte to spread four across midfield ahead of him, which encouraged Hazard and Willian to operate from quite wide, with the licence to drive inside when opportunities presented themselves. Hazard’s appetite was refreshed and Willian’s matched the efforts which made him the club’s player of the year last season, which bodes well.
Within the context of a London derby played at times at helter-skelter pace, Chelsea had to earn their chances with hard, determined running. Conte watched on, immersed. When a clearance came within his radar he cushioned a pass along the touchline to Slaven Bilic, which brought a moment of light relief. But otherwise it was total absorption in this frenetic experience. Dominance came less easily than he was used to when he last worked in club football with Juventus.
Conte could not help but yell in his native language as the chances came and went. On the half-hour Hazard sprang forward and lashed in an angled shot just past the post. “Mamma Mia!” Soon afterwards Willian’s free-kick was tipped over, then Diego Costa fired high. “Che Cazzo!” (“What the hell!”).
Some of that coiled tension was released when Chelsea took the lead early in the second half when César Azpilicueta was tugged back as he cantered into the area. Up stepped Hazard. The Belgian was unerring from the spot. Conte flung a euphoric celebratory uppercut into the evening air. It proved a mere appetiser.
When Willian had a chance to double the lead tipped away by Adrian, Conte kicked an imaginary cat with all his might. His mood took a turn for the worse when West Ham equalised with their first shot on target. Then came the veritable explosion as Costa rifled in Chelsea’s late winner. Conte charged off, all fist-shaking mayhem, and sprinted towards the crowd high fiving anyone within reach. Aside from the emotion, there was a practical element behind that matchwinner. It was the switch to a front two, with Michy Batshuayi combining with Costa that made the difference.
Even for a manager as decorated as Conte, the Premier League experience might take a little getting used to.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010