Antonio Conte reveals a calmer, cooler side in guiding Chelsea to the title
Hiring a new manager isn't entirely dissimilar to making a commitment to a significant other. You know it might not last forever. You know you might not be the one who gets to decide when it ends. Most of all, while you hope that the bad will be far outweighed by the good, you know that there will be a whole load of cons. There always are.
It was no different for Chelsea when they made Antonio Conte their top target over the holiday period between December 2015 and January 2016. They thought he was an exceptional manager, who could galvanise the squad and the fans the way Jose Mourinho once did.
But, as with The Special One, they figured it wasn't always going to be smooth sailing. They had done their research, and Conte's work in club management, particularly in his three wildly successful seasons at Juventus, suggested an uncompromising figure, hell-bent on winning by any means necessary. A manager, who channeled what he was as a player: a lung-busting, pit bull, who relished his role in the trenches.
While that's not a negative per se, it does have a flip-side. At Juventus a number of senior players weren't too sad to see him leave: Conte's intense, drill sergeant ways had become exhausting. Equally, when he did not get what he wanted (or, more correctly, what he thought he deserved) he wasn't shy about making his views known, whether it was complaining about the club's inability to deliver certain transfer targets or moaning about referees. His rant about the officiating after Benfica knocked them out of the Europa League semifinals in 2014 is still the stuff of YouTube legend.
This is a guy who was not shy about calling out his employers, as would be evidenced in his final news conference as Italy manager. He had just been knocked out of Euro 2016 by Germany on penalty kicks and had won universal praise throughout the tournament. A "normal" coach would have basked in the adulation. Not Conte. He went on a tirade about training sessions and clubs not making players available and the lack of support he felt he had ... all this for a job he'd be leaving in the next 24 hours.
Conte's fiery temperament was a legitimate concern on the part of Chelsea. In the early years of the Roman Abramovich era, power changed hands from various executives to managers to agents. No more. There's a pretty defined system in place, with Marina Granovskaia and Michael Emenalo running the club and overseeing contracts and transfers. A manager is expected to work within that structure, which was one of the terms that Mourinho had to accept upon his 2013 return and which, ultimately, one of the reasons he was let go (at least according to his camp).
Some braced themselves for a similar experience with Conte. Except this never transpired. He has generally been on his best behaviour from day one, while toeing the club's party line. If there was tension, it was way, way behind the scenes, so much so that the club managed to keep a lid on it.
"I was sure he'd blow at some point -- he certainly had tons of reasons to do so," said one senior footballing figure who has worked in several major leagues. "From the business with his coaching staff, to the summer transfer session, to what happened in January, when they didn't get another centre-forward. The Conte we saw in Italy would have exploded. This one bit his tongue and made the best of what he had. I don't think anyone who knows him expected that."
Indeed, Conte had wanted to bring in at least two additional assistants into his staff and that was a major sticking point in negotiations. The club felt they had quality people on board and did not want to simply populate the bench with Conte's people. In the end, he still took seven guys with him -- by contrast, Carlo Ancelotti got to hire just two when he became Chelsea boss in 2009 -- but the point is he did not get his way entirely.
Right up until late August, Chelsea's only signings were N'Golo Kante and Michy Batshuayi, the latter of whom Conte soon decided could not be trusted in a regular role. Marcos Alonso and David Luiz arrived to bolster the back line in the final hours of the transfer window and, while they played important roles this season, neither was first- choice. In fact, had they not worked out, they would have been seen as classic "panic buys".
In the January window, when Diego Costa was distracted by offers from China and showing signs of slowing down, Chelsea were unable to land another centre-forward as back-up; Fernando Llorente was strongly linked, but did not materialize.
All of these would have been natural "triggers" for the old Conte. As would refereeing decisions that went against his team (admittedly, there weren't that many this season) or moments like the one following Chelsea's win over Manchester United at Stamford Bridge, when Mourinho lectured him about playing to the crowd.
But Conte didn't bite. He got on with it in a way few -- even at Chelsea -- would have expected.
Did he turn over a new leaf, achieving some Zen-like status? Or did he conclude that it's simply a better way of reaching his stated objective? Or, in fact, was it just the case that he really didn't have that much to whinge about in his first season?
It may be a combination of the three, though, more likely it's the latter two. Conte, while still working for the Italian FA, approached the job with an intensity and work rate few can match. From the moment he was appointed, right through the Euros, he spoke daily to Chelsea officials.
Even before that, he made regular trips to England on his day off to meet with people he knew -- coaches, agents, officials -- in order to pump them for information about the English game. He did it with the humility of a student determined to cram as much as he could into his head and ace an exam.
In fact, he did the same with many of the Chelsea players, meeting them individually before the season, getting their points of view, figuring out what they felt they needed to get back to their best. Conte did something some felt he wasn't programmed to do. He listened.
He heard from everyone, assessed their feedback and made his own decisions. One of his interlocutors said he was downright "shocked" at Conte's humility and willingness to listen and learn. Once work began, he was often the first to arrive and the last to leave -- that part was not a shock for anyone.
What was remarkable, of course, was the club's turnaround. Chelsea finished 10th and gained 50 points in 2015-16. This season, they had 49 half-way through. While Kante was immense, few would have similar expectations for Luiz or Alonso. The rest of the squad, apart from Batshuayi, was entirely comprised of players who were already contracted to Chelsea before Conte arrived. That's what makes the turnaround so remarkable.
And that is down to the manager and the rapport he was able to create with his players. Then again, we're talking about a guy who, in six full seasons as a manager, has won the league five times (three times at Juventus, once at Bari in Serie B and now at Chelsea) and finished second once (at Siena, when he took the team from 19th place the previous year to promotion).
So maybe as much as the fact that Conte won the Premier League, it's the way he did it and the way he acted -- towards the media, other managers, referees, his club -- that stands out.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.