“This squad, dear boys, is coming off two consecutive seventh-place finishes. It’s crazy. It’s shocking. I am not here for this, so it’s time to stop being so crap.”
That, according to Andrea Pirlo, was the opening speech of Antonio Conte’s reign as Juventus manager after he was appointed in 2011. The season ended with the first of three consecutive title victories. They had definitely stopped being so crap.
The speech would need only a tiny tweak to make it relevant at Chelsea, where there are still 16 players who have a Premier League medal yet to lose its sheen. Finishing tenth the year after marching to the title was crazy, shocking and it really is time they stopped being so crap.
The crapness definitely subsided a little after the exit of Jose Mourinho last season, with Chelsea’s record after his departure marginally better than that of Manchester City, and there have been enough signs in pre-season victories over Liverpool and AC Milan (and narrow defeat to Real Madrid) to suggest that the upward curve has become a steep incline after the appointment of the man ominously nicknamed The Godfather by his players in Italy.
“When he speaks, you listen,” said Leonardo Bonucci, a player moulded by Conte into possibly the world’s most polished centre-half. Listening intently right now will be players like Eden Hazard, eager to be converted into a central forward and equally eager to prove that his astonishing fall from grace was more the fault of manager than footballer. And Cesc Fabregas and Nemanja Matic, derided as chumps just a few months after being crowned champions. And Juan Cuadrado and Victor Moses, discarded by Mourinho but emboldened by their new manager’s love of genuine wingers. And N’Golo Kante, who looks like a man who would listen as intently as he plays football.
The Godfather will not be short of henchman this season and, most crucially and easily forgotten after the catastrophe of last season, he will not be short of wonderful footballers. A manager unusually renowned for both man-management and detailed tactical thinking has inherited the perfect situation: Exceptionally talented players in need of motivation and organisation. There have been astute signings and there will be more – the squad clearly needs at least one more centre-half – but more crucial is the harnessing of a squad that can still taste champagne.
While Arsene Wenger, Mauricio Pochettino and Jurgen Klopp have the task of persuading players largely bereft of English silverware that they can win, Conte simply has to remind his players how it felt to win, and make them forget the banners, the chants, the criticism, the abuse, the embarrassment of last season. Only seven Premier League title winners remain in Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United dressing-room – and they are three long years from the taste of success – while Pep Guardiola can look around and see 11 English champions, but none younger than Sergio Aguero at 28. If title races were run on paper, Chelsea would be the favourites.
But the bookies, almost all pundits and the media would have you believe that the title war will be fought entirely in one northern city, with Manchester the setting for a titanic battle between two old foes, managed by two old foes. Newspaper pull-outs and TV trailers will focus almost entirely on the Pep v Jose narrative, the battle between tiki-taka and pragmatism, the contest between shiny new money and the old guard, between sexy Sergio Aguero and the cult of Zlatan. Against this backdrop, Chelsea are easily ignored, which should perfectly suit Conte.
Five years ago, Juventus could not be so readily ignored after a summer of ambitious spending under their shiny new manager in their shiny new stadium, but they were nobody’s favourites for the title after finishing 24 points behind an AC Milan side led imperiously by Zlatan. The internet handily tells us what was expected of the Old Lady in Conte’s first season, and a return to European football was the expectation pretty much across the board.
But that was before he told them it was time to stop being so crap. Which is a plan so simple that it might just work.