It's OK to like Chelsea again thanks to Antonio Conte
In the glow of the current feel-good revival at Stamford Bridge, it may be hard to remember but there was a time when Chelsea was an odious juggernaut of winning everything in sight but the Champions League, filled with smug John Terry-worshipping, bandwagon-jumping fans and ... him. I speak of the insufferable bantam rooster who made it all about himself: Jose "There is God and after God, me" Mourinho.
Oh, how I loathed those Blues. To be perfectly honest, there were even times during the Special Era that they actually occupied an even higher place on my revile-o-meter than Spurs, which is a mortal sin for an Arsenal fan.
So how to explain that less than a year later, I can't wait to watch Chelsea play this week's "Premier League title-decider" against Manchester City?
It's a simple answer. I've joined the rapidly burgeoning Antonio Conte cult, led by a bellowing and bouncing dervish, who by dint of formidable will and tactical wizardry has transformed the Blues into a team that -- all right, I'm man enough to say it -- it's OK to like again. In that sense, Conte's accomplishment so far this season dwarfs those of fellow uber-managers Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp, who have also gotten their respective teams off to title-worthy starts (City and Liverpool trail Chelsea by a solitary point) but didn't have to fumigate the place first.
In just four feverish months, Conte has blown away the mushroom cloud of referee-bullying, player-scapegoating, conspiracy-peddling and Arsene Wenger-taunting that Mourinho left in his toxic wake. Conte has infused his team with the kind of collective spirit that comes from everyone playing with full-throttle intensity and high-grade technique. Even for an irredeemable Gooner like me, that's a pretty irresistible combination.
So let's all shotgun a doppio espresso in celebration of the Conte Revolution and count the ways that the former Juventus and Italy manager has kept us entertained while turning the Premier League race on its head.
Conte believes sleep is for the weak
Admittedly, this is a question that has been deeply personal since I moved to the Land of the 4 a.m. Premier League telecast. And while I appreciate that a number of highly successful people (Thomas Edison, Leonardo da Vinci and Donald Trump come to mind) have famously regarded sleep as a waste of time, Conte reportedly takes his insomnia to "Walking Dead" extremes. Plus, anybody who has witnessed his manic touchline routine knows that Conte has so much adrenaline and caffeine coursing through his veins that he hardly needs the full 120 minutes of sleep.
And how lucky for Chelsea since the tightly coiled Italian seems to do his best work in the dead of the night, particularly following a comprehensive defeat like the 3-0 beatdown the Blues suffered at the hands of Arsenal in September. It was in those fretful early morning hours that Conte had his light bulb moment, hitting upon the bold strategy that would turn around Chelsea's fortunes.
What if, he mused, the Blues were to deploy three central defenders at the back and push his wing backs high up the field? Might that formation do a better job than his favored 3-5-2 in negating teams like Arsenal and Liverpool (Chelsea's other early season loss) who press aggressively with speed?
Managers working out the best system for their team is hardly uncommon, nor is Conte's new 3-4-3 setup revolutionary (Johan Cryuff was playing it with Barcelona more than 20 years ago). What is impressive is how quickly he got Chelsea to employ it to such devastating effect.
Mrs. Conte may object to Antonio constantly turning on the light in the wee hours to jot down notes while the coffee grinder whirs away, but beauty sleep is a small price to pay for five straight clean sheets (before last weekend's 2-1 victory over Spurs) and a seven-game winning streak in the league.
Conte isn't afraid to make the tough calls
In order to implement his grand plan, Conte ran roughshod over sentiment as if it were just another opponent from his combative playing days for Juventus and Italy. Knowing he risked alienating a certain faction of old-school loyalists, he made the bold decision to drop three of Mourinho's most influential dressing-room voices: Terry, the ever-pugnacious but increasingly creaky Blues captain, the slick but fitful passing maestro Cesc Fabregas and the running-on-fumes-but-beloved right-back, Branislav Ivanovic.
"He likes leaders, he likes big personalities," Andrea Pirlo once said of Conte. "But he will not stand for players who think they are bigger than him."
Nor less committed than him, either. Conte forged his reputation as a player based on his indefatigable graft, and he will accept nothing less from his players.
There was a telling moment late in Chelsea's 3-0 rout of Leicester in October when Diego Costa signaled to the bench that he wanted to come off. When Conte ignored him, the striker (no shrinking violet himself) proceeded to the touchline for a little tete a tete with his manager. He was greeted with Conte's signature death stare, then with a fusillade of four-letter words that you didn't need to be fluent in Italian in order to understand.
Costa sheepishly trotted back on the field. It was a far cry from the time toward the end of Mourinho's reign at Stamford Bridge when, frustrated that he wasn't getting to play against Spurs, Costa flung his pink substitute's bib at the boss in disgust.
A disciple of the legendary, iron-willed Italian taskmasters Arrigo Sacchi and Marcelo Lippi, Conte makes no secret of the sacrifices required to play for him. The 46-year-old demands hard-running midfielders who attack and defend with equal relentlessness. In N'Golo Kante, Victor Moses and Pedro, he found those players.
Kante, the former Leicester all-action midfielder coveted by many top clubs, has proven to be a bargain at $40 million but few expected Moses and Pedro to be playing anywhere other than in China, let alone providing the width and fluidity that Conte's system demands. Both made lung-busting box-to-box runs last weekend to score Chelsea's goals against Spurs in the Blues' hard-earned, come-from-behind 2-1 victory.
As impressive as those resurgences under Conte have been, they pale in comparison to the upgrade undergone by his defensive linchpin, David Luiz. The Sideshow Bob of only two years ago was the expensive hood ornament for Brazil's fabled World Cup implosion against Germany. Today, he's a bounding mop reborn. Conte has rendered Luiz's lack of positional intelligence moot by playing him as the quasi-sweeper in his three-at-the-back formation, thus ensuring there is usually another defender on hand to cover the lanky one's inevitable mistakes.
This approach allows Luiz to dribble out of defense and ignite the attack with one of his seeing-eye through-balls or position himself in the opponent's box on set plays, where Chelsea can take advantage of his aerial power. It is not an act of insanity to say that he's been the best defender in the Premier League this season and a large part of the reason Chelsea have conceded a paltry 10 goals.
Of course, Conte is no fool. He still holds onto the Brazilian with a tactical leash just in case he decides to go off and chase squirrels.
Conte has Costa and Hazard smiling again
Whether Mourinho actively encouraged Costa to act like a rabid dog or the striker's snarling mien simply came naturally, you'd be hard-pressed to remember a moment when the Chelsea striker looked like he was enjoying himself on the field.
Part of the reason for his baring of teeth was that he was so starved for anything resembling decent service that instead of scoring goals to unsettle opponents, he desperately tried to wind them up with his surly antics. But while he's still given to the occasional spasm of histrionics, it's no longer his default position. Costa is so settled these days that even when fouled, he has a sly grin affixed to his hirsute face as if to say "no worries, dude."
His new-found focus (along with a leaner, fitter physique) has helped him score 10 league goals, collect four assists and, most importantly, not a single red card.
And then there is Eden Hazard who, like Costa, would like to permanently erase his final bitter, aimless campaign under Mourinho that saw the 2015 Premier League Player of the Year look like he was playing striker for a David Moyes side. But the Belgian has been the joyful recipient of a Conte mind-wipe, combined with liberation from anything resembling defensive duties, so much so that he has already surpassed last season's goal tally after just 13 games.
Never was the Belgian more electric than in the 5-0 demolition of Everton in which he scored two goals and had a foot in the other three. "Fantastica" was how Conte summed up Hazard's day as he bro-hugged him to within an inch of his life at the final whistle.
Conte speaks softly but carries a big kick
While you probably shouldn't translate Conte's language on the training ground for the sake of the children, to see him address the media in a postmatch conference is to appreciate his cerebral side. Regardless of the result, he is always polite and soft-spoken, answering questions in his halting English and maintaining a calm, dignified air. It makes you wonder how this guy ever got to be manager of Chelsea.
But then there is his evil twin, the one whose locker-room talks in his native tongue led the great Pirlo to write in his autobiography: "When he speaks, his words assault you. They crash through your mind, often quite violently, and settle deep within."
Pirlo vividly recalls one particular state of the union address when Conte first arrived at Juventus, with the Old Lady having endured two consecutive seventh place finishes. "Absolutely appalling," barked the new boss. "I've not come here for that. It's time we stopped being crap." And Juve did, going undefeated and winning the Serie A title in Conte's first season in charge.
Whether the Italian can replicate that instant success with Chelsea remains to be seen, but one thing is certain from his approach, he won't be timid in the asking.
David Hirshey is an ESPN FC columnist. He has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and written about it for The New York Times and Deadspin.