Antonio Conte and Chelsea not just champions but historically great
At around 6:10 p.m. on Sept. 24, 2016, the outlook was very grim for new Chelsea manager Antonio Conte. A man usually seen hyper-animated and bouncing around his technical area, micromanaging his team through every second of the game, instead cut a statuesque and pensive figure at the Emirates Stadium. He had just witnessed Mesut Ozil scything through the centre of his team on the way to scoring Arsenal's third goal of a quite horrific first half for those of a blue persuasion.
Fears that the previous season's pathetic title defence was more than just a temporary blip invaded the thoughts of most Chelsea supporters, at least fleetingly. Thoughts of an undignified scramble for a top-four finish in what looked to be the most competitive Premier League season in history were uppermost in the fans' minds.
Fast-forward eight months and the mood could not look more different. Ever since Michy Batshuayi's close-range strike hit the back of the West Bromwich Albion net last Friday, Conte's feet have barely touched the ground, as he has either been jumping on one of his player's backs in celebration or being joyously flung into the air by members of his squad.
After that miserable evening in North London, received wisdom was that this was supposed to be the year that Arsenal got their act together with Ozil finally justifying the hype. Chelsea looked set for another year in the doldrums. Now, Arsenal could well suffer their worst ever finish under Arsene Wenger with Ozil reverting to type while Chelsea can boast their fifth title in 13 seasons. Wenger's men might just have the last laugh in the FA Cup final but that would neither lessen Chelsea's achievements nor do much more than paper over the cracks at Arsenal.
The remarkable nature of the turnaround in Chelsea's season is not only that they managed to win the league after the team appeared so lost and imbalanced but more so that their feats are challenging those of the most impressive champions in league history. Having accumulated 90 points -- the same amount amassed by Arsenal's so-called "Invincibles" in 2003-04 -- with Monday's 4-3 win over Watford, they would already have done enough to win 19 of the 25 Premier League seasons to date and they still have a game to play. A draw on the final day against Sunderland will take them into the top five points totals in Premier League history, while a win would put them second, behind only the 95 collected by Chelsea under Jose Mourinho in 2004-05.
One more victory would also be their 30th and see them set a new record for wins in a 38-game top-flight season. The current record of 29 was also set by Mourinho's 2004-05 side and matched again by the Blues the following campaign. Given how extraordinary the "Special One's" achievements were at Chelsea, that Conte could match and even surpass some of them in his debut season is truly incredible.
That is not to denigrate Mourinho whatsoever. The Portuguese carved a new identity for the club and imbued it with the winning mentality that holds to this day. Everyone associated with Chelsea Football Club will be forever in his debt, no matter what provocations he decides to fire towards Stamford Bridge. But there is no mistaking that there is now a new figurehead at Chelsea that is revered to the hilt by the hordes at Stamford Bridge and beyond.
Conte inherited a squad full of proven winners, which has undoubtedly helped, but he has also put his own indelible stamp on the team. With Chelsea having always played 4-3-3 or a variation on the theme since Mourinho's first spell, moving to a back three was bordering on revolutionary. The tenacity shown in every area of the team mirrors the club's previous title winners but has been done without limiting the freedom of those whose very best asset is their individual expression.
It should also be pointed out that he inherited a squad suffering from a clear lack of confidence and one that had even been subject to intense mass vocal dissatisfaction from match-going fans, something unheard of previously. Despite winning the first three games of the season, a tally of one point from the next three that also included that defeat to Arsenal showed that those problems had been far from eradicated.
When watching that Ozil goal again, it is incredible to see just how disjointed the team were and how much dysfunction was evident. Looking at the gap between defence and midfield and the lethargic nature of the recovering runs, it is hard to believe that almost exactly the same team has cruised to the title. But they have and victory on Sunday will make them the most victorious champions in Premier League history. Whatever the result, one thing is certain: Conte will not be standing still.
Phil is one of ESPN's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @PhilLythell.