If you were to judge him by body language alone you would not think Antonio Conte was a manager currently in possession of the Premier League title. The man who blew away all competition in his first season in English football spent much of his final press conference before the new season hunkered low, his forehead furrowed, his eyes beaming a combination of wariness and ennui.
Three months after winning the league his Chelsea side are down in numbers and it is clear the Italian wants more names in his squad. He will start the season not only without Nemanja Matic, sold to Manchester United for £40m, but missing Eden Hazard and Pedro through injury. He will not talk about Diego Costa, last season’s leading goalscorer who has been frozen out of the first team and is now in legal dispute with the club. He insists his side are not the favourites to retain their crown. Yet the suspicion remains Conte enjoys the adversity he believes his club to be facing. That, in fact, he thrives on it.
“At the start of the season it’s simple to tell that in this league there are probably six top teams and they should fight for the title,” is how Conte summed up the Premier League challenge, which begins for Chelsea at home to Burnley on Saturday afternoon. “I think honestly if you have to give an evaluation on paper, it’s right to not put Chelsea as a favourite. It was the same last season for Chelsea; no one believed we could win the title. This season, in this moment, I agree with these people who think this.”
Contained within these remarks is a reminder to the Chelsea hierarchy to get a move on in recruitment. There is also a degree of expectation management, not only acknowledging that Chelsea will have additional Champions League fixtures to contend with this season, but also the more simple fact that retaining the title is hard; as his predecessors Carlo Ancelotti and José Mourinho (second time around) found. But the line “no one believed we could win” is just as telling. If those outside the club want to doubt Chelsea’s capabilities, then they are welcome to. They may just come to regret it.
Danny Rose and Danny Drinkwater this week joined the lengthy list of names to which the champions have been linked this summer, alongside ongoing targets such as Juventus’s Alex Sandro and Internazionale’s Antonio Candreva. Conte would not talk about individuals – “the club knows very well my opinion” – but he was happy to make a broader point. “If you have the possibility to spend money and improve the quality,” he said, “I think this is right way to be competitive and fight for something important.”
In the absence of new signings Conte’s main message was to stress his support for the group currently at the club. Those players loaned out, he said, had gone for a reason despite what his rivals, such as Arsène Wenger, may suggest. For the Arsenal manager Chelsea had enough players already on their books to fill any gaps, but chose to lend them out. For Conte: “If the club sends a player on loan for development, that means the club thinks the player is not ready to play for Chelsea.”
What that means for those young players who have not yet gone out on loan – from the Denmark defender Andreas Christensen to the Belgium Under-21 midfielder Charly Musonda – is unclear. It depends, Conte said, on their ability to deal with consistent pressure, the kind their manager seems to put naturally upon himself.
“It’s not easy when you speak about pressure,” he said. “With me I am used to it. With young players they are not used to it. It’s very difficult to judge young players only through the training session. But at the right moment you have to take risks because you haven’t other possibilities.” Again, the coded message.
One young player who does look likely to earn Premier League minutes is Michy Batshuayi. The striker was bought for £32m from Marseille last season but played only the smallest of roles for the senior side until a late flourish brought four goals in the last five matches of the season. With Álvaro Morata still being given an in-depth introduction to the Conte way, the Belgian looks set to lead the line in his stead.
“I think this is a great possibility for Michy,” Conte said. “He is playing every game from the start and it is very important for him to play, and to play well. Michy is putting 120% into every moment during training and in the game. For sure we are talking about a young player and he needs to develop, but he is trying to put his best in every moment of the day.”
As for Morata: “He needs time to understand, to adapt to our style. Álvaro is working very well, improving his physical condition a lot in the last 10 days, and he is starting to understand what I want from him in the game. For me the striker is a really important role and it’s really important to understand what I want from the position.”
Demanding more from his players, from his board, from himself, and doing so constantly; this is the Conte way. The phrase “120%” was the most common motif in his last address before the season begins. It is a sizeable increase on the traditional 110%, and surely deliberately so.
“At the moment I signed a new contract I decided to stay to work for this club to give 120% every day for my club and my players,” he said. “For sure it will not be easy in this part of the season but I do not want to find any excuse for me, my staff or my players.
“In my career I always work with real pressure and it’s normal. The most important thing is to face that pressure in the right way. Sometimes it’s really serious but it’s also important to have laughter sometimes too. Not so much, but sometimes.”