Mourinho damaged Chelsea, but Conte has found a fix
With his final pronouncements as Chelsea manager, made one year ago yesterday, Jose Mourinho left one last barb in the players he felt had betrayed him. "Sometimes I think that last season I did an amazing job and brought the players to a level that is not their level, and they could not keep it up," commented Mourinho.
Three days later, 12 months ago tomorrow, he was sacked.
It felt like a plausible explanation at the time, even if it was still breathtaking to hear any manager say that, frankly, he was better than his players. But one year on it has been revealed to be utterly ludicrous. Thibaut Courtois, Eden Hazard and Diego Costa were top players all along.
Those three have driven Chelsea on this remarkable 10-game Premier League winning streak that could re-write the records, and win them the Premier League trophy too.
Willian, Cesar Azpilicueta, Nemanja Matic and Gary Cahill have also found their careers revived against expectations. It is a remarkable achievement from the players, and from Antonio Conte, to lift the team out of the mire they were in.
It felt, as Guus Hiddink tried to pick up the pieces earlier this year, that the return of Mourinho had set the club's development back a few years.
They had spent big on good players, but Mourinho had sold Romelu Lukaku and Kevin de Bruyne, while even the ones who stayed had been damaged by the tiresome politics of that traumatic autumn. Costa wanted to return to Atletico Madrid, and Courtois was open to the possibility too.
Conte knew that he had a huge job to do when he came in, just as big as when he took over Juventus in 2011, after their second consecutive seventh-placed finish. But the story of this season has been how quickly and convincingly he has rebuilt the damaged club he took over.
"When there are very bad seasons, because we finished 10th, it is normal that something remains in the players' heads," Conte said in October. "It is very difficult because you must change what happened last season, and that is not easy. It will not be easy to cancel a bad season like last season."
But Conte has been making it look easy. Two days after he said that, his team wiped the floor with Mourinho's Manchester United and beat them 4-0 at Stamford Bridge. That was their third win in a row.
Their 10th came on Wednesday at Sunderland. They have not always played as well as they did against United, or when they beat Everton 5-0. But they always find a way, whether through hard work, tactical ingenuity or individual skill. Only a bad injury to Costa, or perhaps Hazard, could cost them the title from here.
Even this half-season alone is one of the great managerial feats of recent years. It has been a brilliant rescue job by Conte, one justifying why Gianluigi Buffon still says that he is the best manager he has ever worked with in his 20-year career.
Much of this work is tactical, endlessly drilling the players on where they should be. Conte football is hard work but is simpler than Pep Guardiola's game, which is why Chelsea could play with more conviction in beating City 3-1 this month. The players don't find all of this fascinating, but they appreciate that it works. Not being in Europe has the very obvious benefit of giving Conte more time and space to convey his ideas to them.
But there is another side to football, which is why the changed atmosphere is so important. The players like him. They respect his playing career. They find him engaging and supportive and yet, given his manic touchline micro-management, surprisingly calm in training. After Mourinho spent the last few months of his time at Chelsea lashing out at invented enemies, it is a place transformed.
What technical director Michael Emenalo called the "palpable discord" at training feels a long time ago. Conte is leading Chelsea back to the top.