As a player for Juventus in the 1990s, Antonio Conte himself would admit to being the least gifted of a midfield unit which featured Zinedine Zidane, Didier Deschamps, Vladimir Jugovic and Edgar Davids.
Upon signing for the Bianconeri from Lecce in 1991 he confessed to being overawed by the figures around him in the dressing room: “There was the great Trapattoni. There was Roberto Baggio. I was very emotional. I was a player-fan.”
But Conte’s significance to that squad in turning them into the premier force in Italian and, for a period, European football while ending AC Milan’s dominance of Serie A lay in a sheer bloody-minded determination to be better.
Maybe it was fuelled by a belief to make up for any apparent shortcomings or the fact he was playing for the boyhood club of his dreams, but Conte’s work ethic and energy proved infectious as he became club captain in 1997, a position he held until retirement in 2004.
However, it wasn’t just a desire to run himself into the ground and make the absolute most of every opportunity he was given in the black and white, another of Conte’s great attributes was his brain.
Three giants of Italian management: Giovanni Trapattoni, Marcello Lippi and Carlo Ancelotti made him their on-field lieutenant; mirroring the message of hark work and defensive diligence in leading by example. Where Conte ran, others followed and his determination to place such high demands on himself and those around him also led to a natural progression in his own game. As he soaked up knowledge, those apparent technical failings eroded and he became a more accomplished midfielder as he advanced in years.
Conte was always a prime candidate to go into management and it’s little surprise he’s been drawn to players who he sees a bit of himself in and can vicariously play the game though.
Arturo Vidal was one of his first signings as Juventus coach, in 2011, labelling him a “complete midfielder”; the Chilean now established as one of the foremost box-to-box midfield forces in world football who also pertinently said of his coach in 2013, “Conte has enhanced my qualities and has got me to see football in a different way, a much more professional way. He is obsessed by a culture of work.”
Complete was the adjective he has also afforded Paul Pogba after turning the France international from an overlooked talent at Manchester United into the world’s most expensive footballer.
Il Polpo (the Octopus) was a bit of everything: a passer, playmaker, industrious tackler, goalscorer, but most of all he got up and down the field with boundless vigour.
And for all Pogba’s failings at United this season – of which many have been exaggerated – a lack of work ethic is not one. Although sharing similar qualities to Vidal and Pogba, N’Golo Kante is perhaps the closest Conte has come to the embodiment of him as a player.
A slow-burner, he was a tackling workhorse at French overachievers Caen before then-Leicester director of football Steve Walsh brought him to England. Walsh revealed Kante’s own Conte-like self-doubt recalling in the Sunday Times how the midfielder approached him at Leicester for advice of playing internationally for Mali over France because he felt he wasn’t good enough for Les Bleus.
We all now know that to be nonsense and Kante’s development has taken him to the very top of the English game as he was rightfully named PFA Player of the Year.
Conte’s change to a failing squad has been minimal in personnel, which perhaps emphasises his own effect on the dressing room, but those few that were bought in – Michy Batshuayi aside – have made seismic impacts. None more so than Kante who with every tackle, interception, lung-busting run and block sets the tone for how Conte wants his team to play.
He is a continuity player who sets the tempo and allows them to break quickly in transition with his quick and decisive use of possession – Chelsea lead the league in counter-attacking goals.
What’s more, he is still only 26 and as a relative late bloomer and given his rise in the game so far, with Conte behind him there is every reason to suggest he can get better; become more creative and offer more of an attacking threat.
That all depends on what his boss wants to do with him but what is clear is that as long as Conte remains in the Stamford Bridge dugout, so Kante will be on the pitch. It’s the closest the Italian can get to being out there himself.
As he said last month: “I was this type of player. And I always appreciated this type of player, with great generosity, great ability to work for the team. I think it’s important to have this type of player if we want to win.”
Around this time last year, Chelsea were in the midst of completing the worst title defence by a Premier League champions, scraping their way to a 10th-place finish in a season which saw them sack Jose Mourinho for the second time in the club’s history.
Just under a year later, Antonio Conte has the team holding a four-point lead in the Premier League with six games left, and an FA Cup final awaits Chelsea in May.
How has the Italian managed the turnaround?
Copa90 and Top Eleven take a look at Conte’s revitalisation of Chelsea this season.
Will Conte and his charges hold on to complete a stunning league and cup Double?
The sight of Zlatan Ibrahimovic limping off at the end of the 90 minutes during Manchester United’s 2-1 win over Anderlecht on Thursday cast a pall over the Red Devils’ progression to the Europa League semi-finals. Although the club has not given any definitive news on the injury, various media reports have suggested that Ibrahimovic will be out until January 2018.
For a team that has been dependent on Ibrahimovic’s output, almost to a fault, the news is a severe blow. Ibrahimovic has accounted for 37 goals this season, scoring a remarkable 28 at the age of 35, 17 of which have come in the Premier League.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic has been involved in 37 goals across all competitions for Man Utd this season.— Squawka Football (@Squawka) April 21, 2017
28 goals ⚽
9 assists 🅰️
Figurehead. ✊ pic.twitter.com/mlIEeQrKOa
Given that no other United player has scored more than 10 goals this season, it goes without saying that Ibrahimovic will be a big miss.
And it’s not just the goals. Zlatan has been the focal point of United’s attack all season long. He’s excellent at holding up the ball, he’s dominant in the air, and he frequently creates chances for his teammates – indeed, with nine assists, he tops the United charts.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic has 28 goals for Manchester United this season, 18 more than any teammate. pic.twitter.com/fa6pNaVLeQ— Paul Carr (@PCarrESPN) April 21, 2017
More than that, for a team that had, by its lofty standards, been fairly average in the three seasons before this, Ibrahimovic’s immense self-belief and confidence has been a boon. Even veteran players like Michael Carrick and Wayne Rooney have credited Ibrahimovic with instantly lifting the dressing room with his presence.
Meanwhile, young attacking players like Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, and Jesse Lingard have been given the opportunity to learn from one of the best. From the way he dedicates himself in training to his knowledge and experience of the game, Zlatan has been a wonderful mentor for United’s young strikers.
Now, those youngsters have the chance to prove that Ibrahimovic’s injury is not the end of the world for Jose Mourinho’s side.
The Swede’s all-around qualities have been masking an uncomfortable truth for a while: Ibrahimovic’s goals may have kept United afloat this season, but his misses have led to the team dropping points they had no business dropping.
Ibrahimovic started this season on a tear not only in terms of his goals but his clinicality, as well – at one point early in the season, he had converted over 60% of his chances. But his conversion rate has plummeted, especially compared to other leading strikers.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the Premier League so far:— Squawka Football (@Squawka) August 20, 2016
66.6% chance conversion rate
Not bad! pic.twitter.com/yobLFEZAr2
@Abdulghaleiw Zlatan Ibrahimovic's chance conversion rate in the Premier League this season is 18.8%.— Squawka Football (@Squawka) March 31, 2017
Ibrahimovic’s chance conversion rate is only marginally more than half that of Romelu Lukaku, the league’s leading scorer. And the Swede has missed more clear-cut chances than any other player in the league.
It’s not too hard to pinpoint the games in which Ibrahimovic blatantly cost United points. The 0-0 draw against Liverpool at Anfield in October, hailed as a creditable point against a high-flying attack, could have been a classic smash-and-grab instead. But Ibrahimovic fluffed his lines when presented with the game’s best chance – a point-blank header late in the game when completely unmarked.
That’s far from the only time Ibrahimovic’s misses have been the difference between a win and a draw (or loss). Against Burnley at home, the Swede had 12 shots, more than anyone else, but failed to find the net, and missed one of the best chances of the game when a Paul Pogba cross found him unmarked at the back post. That game ended in a 0-0 draw.
Benik Afobe: Only Zlatan Ibrahimovic (17) has missed more clear-cut goalscoring chances than Afobe (12) in the Premier League this season pic.twitter.com/O3blRiuIeC— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) April 3, 2017
There was the missed penalty in a 1-1 draw against Bournemouth, a missed chance in a 0-0 draw against Hull City, and several misses in a 1-1 draw against West Ham – all at home.
Meanwhile, United showed last Sunday that they could produce a great game of football even without their talismanic striker.
With Ibrahimovic rested, a strike force of Rashford and Lingard caused all sorts of problems against league leaders Chelsea, with Rashford scoring and both youngsters hassling and pressing the Chelsea defence.
It was the sort of performance that wouldn’t have been possible with Ibrahimovic on the pitch, simply because he doesn’t have the legs to incessantly press an opposition defence, or constantly make runs to get in behind a back-line.
Rashford, in particular, offers hope for United in Ibrahimovic’s absence. The 19-year-old was always going to struggle to hit the heights of his remarkable first season, but in many ways this year has been much more significant for the youngster.
Marcus Rashford has scored more Premier League goals this season (5) than any other teenager. pic.twitter.com/2EqxdYDzYL— Squawka Football (@Squawka) April 16, 2017
Rashford’s all-around game has developed thanks to his move out wide to accommodate Ibrahimovic, as he’s become one of the best crossers of the ball in United’s squad, and he’s honed his ability to beat defenders with either pace or trickery.
There’s no doubt his game has improved this season, and the stats back that up. Compared to last year, Rashford’s stats per 90 minutes for chances created (1.05 this season to 0.63 last season), successful take-ons (44.74% to 26.47%), and pass completion (79% to 77%) are all up.
He’s also in form, having scored in each of his last three games, which includes two Premier League appearances – after enduring a league goal drought that stretched back to September – and the extra-time winner that put United in the Europa League semi-finals.
Ibrahimovic’s absence also gives Anthony Martial the chance to step up and display the talent that made him a hero at Old Trafford last season. Martial’s comparatively poor defensive work rate is largely the reason Jose Mourinho does not completely trust the Frenchman, but there’s no doubting the youngster’s ability in attack.
Mourinho: "Do I think Martial has great potential? Yes. Do I think he can play for me? Yes, but he needs to give me things I like."— Devils Latest (@Devils_Latest) April 19, 2017
Rashford, Martial, and Jesse Lingard offer a clear way forward for Mourinho in the closing stages of the season. Assuming that Rashford is now the first-choice central striker, then, against a team like Burnley, United’s opponents on Sunday, Martial could join Henrikh Mkhitaryan as the players flanking Rashford. Their pace and trickery would help United get behind an obstinate Burnley defence.
Meanwhile, against Manchester City, Arsenal, Celta Vigo, and Tottenham, whom United face in successive away games, Mourinho can replicate the Chelsea blueprint: Rashford and Lingard up front to press the opposition defence and provide pace for United counter-attacks.
There was a time when an injury to Zlatan Ibrahimovic seemed like it could derail Manchester United’s season. Now, though, it may just be a blessing in disguise.