A year ago, Chelsea was wrapping up an utterly miserable season. The defending champion was mired in the middle of the English Premier League, with as many losses as wins and just above the relegation zone, and their machiavellian manager, Jose Mourinho, had been ousted mid-season after losing the trust of his players. The title in 2015 was won by 5,000-to-1 outsider Leicester.
Chelsea is now the champion again, bouncing back to win the title under the guidance of a new manager, Antonio Conte, who extracted the most from his players. To revive Chelsea, Conte, 47, an Italian who previously managed Italian soccer giant Juventus to three titles as well as the Italian national team, reached into a toolkit familiar to all good managers, addressing the team’s tactics, their training, and most significantly, their psychology.
Make it fun
Chelsea’s players were beaten down and demoralized after three years of Mourinho, a brilliant manager notorious for using mind games to manipulate his teams. While Mourinho—who dubbed himself “the special one”—held himself aloof from his players, Conte worked to ingratiate himself and getting his players to relax.
Conte hosted a pre-season barbecue for Chelsea’s players and their families, threw a trampoline party for their kids, and at Christmas, sent bottles of Prosecco to staff with personalized cards. “It is really important to have that at your workplace — for you to come in and feel happy,” forward Diego Costa told the Mirror. “You need a good atmosphere and a bit of fun.”
In training, Conte drills the players relentlessly, and obsesses over details like where they stand during corner kicks. At practices, he personally places the cones the players’ run through, pacing off the distance between them—unlike many managers who delegate that to their coaches. That preparation pays dividends, with players never questioning their roles.
He also attends to his players mental preparation, encouraging and cajoling them so by match time, they’re convinced they can beat anyone. Simone Pepe, a former player, wrote in the Guardian: “Once, before an important match, he came to each one of us and said: ‘You must remember you’re the best in the world. There’s nothing you can’t do.’ We went on the pitch and we had a fantastic game.”
He also acquired one major player last summer: the soft-spoken N’Golo Kanté, who was voted the best player in the Premier League by the other players this year. And he was bought from previous champion Leicester, making Kanté a rare back-to-back title winner with two different teams and showing that Conte is always looking out for talent from anywhere to make his already substantial team better.
Conte carefully nurtured relationships with the media, who can make life miserable for a soccer coach, and the team’s owner, Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, who has churned through 11 managers since 2003 (including Mourinho twice). He took the time to manage sensitive situations with his players, such easing aging Chelsea legend John Terry from the team without it becoming a distraction, and smoothed over a dispute with Costa over playing time without the star sulking.
Get ready to do it again
It’s not unusual for a new leader to find success with a new approach, particularly if it’s a sharp departure from their predecessor’s. Maintaining that success is harder, once the novelty wears off. Next year Conte will face the pressure of defending the title, and the expectations that come with the third-highest payroll in the Premier league, reportedly £218 million ($281 million) this season.
Smart managers don’t take their success for granted, and look for ways to improve their organization even while they’re on top. Conte is doubtlessly already lobbying Abramovich and his deputies for additional players to bolster the roster for next season. He may even be planning the menu for the next pre-season barbecue.