In a few weeks’ time, the curtains will fall on arguably the most watched domestic league in the world – the English Premier League – with all indications pointing to a sixth title for Chelsea.
Incidentally at the start of the season last August not many would have predicted such an outcome, especially following their dismal showing in defending their title the previous season when the midseason sacking of the man who had made them kings, Jose Mourinho, saved them from possibly becoming the first champions to be relegated the very next season.
As at the time the Portuguese tactician was asked to go, the Blues were hovering dangerously close to the Premier League exit door in 16th place – having lost nine of the 16 games played! But the arrival of Guus Hiddink, a man who had also ‘saved’ them in his first stint, steadied the ship and Chelsea finished the season in 10th place.
However, Mourinho’s second season misadventure was not the only reason the Blues were not widely tipped for glory, another factor was the arrival of a new manager in the person of Antonio Conte. Conte, who had never managed a club in the Premier League before, had just guided Italy to a Euro 2016 quarter-final penalty shootout defeat to Germany, was expected to find it tough going in his first foray in English top flight football, even though he had guided the last club he handled, Juventus to three consecutive scudetto titles.
However, the Italian gave an indication that he would not be affected by the ‘first season blues’ when he won all his first four matches at the start of the new English season in August, which included three league wins and a EFL Cup – Second Round triumph over Bristol Rovers.
Going into the second month of the threeyear deal he had signed with the Blues, the 47-year-old former international, whom the Azzurri nicknamed “The Godfather” due to the way he talked and the way he made them want to listen when he was in charge of Italy, was yet to taste defeat. He kicked off September with a 2-2 draw against Swansea City before suffering his first loss, incidentally in front of Stamford Bridge fans, courtesy of a 2-1 reversal to Liverpool.
However, Conte, who had won critical acclaim and earned him comparisons with José Mourinho, Marcello Lippi, and Arrigo Sacchi, primarily due to his obsession with tactics, his winning mentality and ability to foster great team spirit among his players, was still reluctant to adopt his favoured 3–5–2 formation, which had brought him so much success with Juventus – perhaps afraid that he did not have the players to do so. But after a sobering 3-0 hammering by Arsenal on September 24 at the Emirates, Conte took stock, dumped the 4–1–4–1 formation and immediately reverted to his tried and tested formation.
He changed the system to a fluid 3–4– 2–1, with his trademark three-man defence consisting of David Luiz, César Azpilicueta and Gary Cahill, two defensive-minded midfielders in N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matić, two wing-backs equally capable at also playing as wingers (Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso), and a three-man attack spearheaded by striker Diego Costa and crucially assisted by outside forwards Eden Hazard and Pedro or Willian. This system depends on the constant positional movement of attacking players, with the two wide forwards moving inside when the full-backs make overlapping forward runs, thus effectively forming a 3–4–3 and at times a 3–4–1–2.
When losing the ball, players’ quick defensive transitions make the system easily transform into a compact 5–4–1. Chelsea’s performances improved dramatically after the tactical change, with 13 consecutive wins in the Premier League – including a 4-0 whitewash of Manchester United. Conte drew praise for his role in revitalising the team in the media, with BBC pundit John Motson describing Chelsea’s 5–0 home win against Everton on November 5, 2016 as the best 90-minute performance he had ever seen in the Premier League.
In addition to their tactical discipline and organisation, Chelsea also drew praise for their fitness and work-rate under Conte, which was attributed to the team’s highly rigorous preseason training, which Cahill described as one of the “hardest” he’s ever experienced.
Although there are still four games to go, the Italian has proven that there is nothing wrong in a leader admitting his way is not working and adopting another method, which will bring results – which he did so spectacularly in September.
So why all this embellishment of Chelsea and their imaginative coach? Because I believe we can take a cue from the Italian tactician. Many of our politicians have over the years persisted with carrying on with their ways which are clearly not helping the nation but rather stagnating and stifling the life out of the country.
If not, how does one explain that the living conditions of millions of Nigerians have only continued to get worst despite the various changes in government (be it military then or civilian now) with each promising to better their lot only to leave them worse off than how they were when they took over.
Having witnessed the various governments (military and civilian) I have come to the painful conclusion that it is not a military or party problem but rather sadly a major Nigerian flaw! Millions of Nigerians grumbling about their situation now will still troop out en masse in two years’ time to vote many of the same set of politicians that have impoverished them while they (politicians) have grown more robust in the midst of the hardship across the land. Rather than banding together to vote those who genuinely have the wellbeing of this great country at heart, we shall see many of the same old faces coming back because it is they that have the resources to get people to vote for them.
Those that do not have the resources but mean well for the nation will never smell power in this country and this is why we shall continue to slide downwards rather than fulfilling the great potential that our size and resources bestowed on the nation should be. So unless we as a people are ready to also take a cue from Conte we shall continue to tread the same path of unfulfilled greatness