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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

Chelsea win over Spurs lifted straight off the pages of Italian manager Antonio Conte's 'catenaccio' textbook

Defence minded, tactically disciplined - even Conte's celebration at Marcos Alonso's winner had shades of Tardelli

Manager Antonio Conte celebrates after Chelsea's match winner against Tottenham Hotspur. Andrew Couldridge / Reuters
Manager Antonio Conte celebrates after Chelsea's match winner against Tottenham Hotspur. Andrew Couldridge / Reuters

The celebration was wild-eyed and manic. It prompted comparisons to Marco Tardelli in the 1982 World Cup final, but perhaps that is because Tardelli serves as a form of shorthand, to British audiences anyway, for Italian abandon amid the delirium of a goal. Antonio Conte leapt around the Wembley dugout, rediscovering the joy of football. He had his suit on again and he had his mojo back.

Tottenham were beaten. Chelsea had won the duel of last season’s dominant duo, despite everything. Conte showed definitively that, unlike Jose Mourinho two years ago, he had not lost the dressing room. He peppered his post-match interviews with words that illustrate his ethos: fighters, spirit, heart, desire, motivation, suffer, compact, champions. That is Conte’s management in a nutshell.

It was at England’s national stadium but there was an Italian feel to it. Ruud Gullit, a veteran of Serie A, called it catenaccio. Perhaps, coming from a Dutchman, it was not intended as praise. Perhaps there could be no higher compliment.

Like Tardelli, Conte was a Juventus defensive midfielder. He helped transform Chelsea last season by pairing two defensive midfielders. And, after their sorry start to the season, he helped revive them by using three. David Luiz’s deployment in midfield was enforced by injuries and suspensions. It was telling that Conte singled out the Brazilian for praise afterwards. His display, culminating in winning the ball to help set up Marcos Alonso’s winner, was proof of character.

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And it was tempting to hark back to the last time Conte fielded a midfield trio so dependent on graft and so shorn of high-class craft. His Italy, with Stefano Sturaro, Marco Parolo and Emanuele Giaccherini at the heart of a weakened team, nonetheless took world champions Germany to penalties in the Euro 2016 quarter-final.

They had 38 per cent of possession, Chelsea a mere 32 per cent against Spurs. The workmanlike Willian was the closest thing to a flair player in the starting 11. It is one of football’s peculiarities that a manager can seemingly signal his intention to play for a draw with the teamsheet and get a win. Others pack sides with potential scorers. Conte operated on the principle that if enough defensive-minded players do their jobs, someone will supply the goals. Alvaro Morata apart, his team had few obvious finishers. Instead, they sourced two goals from a wing-back, Alonso, and stopped any Spurs player from finding the net.

It highlighted Conte’s resourcefulness. His frustrations this summer seem a product of transfer-market misadventures. He may want an injection of superstars. He may be better off without them. Once again, Chelsea resembled a band of brothers on Sunday, camouflaging individual imperfections with collective determination.

He is a Galactico manager who has a capacity to prosper with limited players. He didn’t win the title because his squad was inherently better. He won because they were more organised, more consistent, more driven. It was a triumph of original thinking, clever configuration and training-ground expertise. So was Sunday’s victory.

If Chelsea were defined by defensive midfielders against Spurs – the reinvented Luiz, the semi-fit warrior Tiemoue Bakayoko and the hyperactive N’Golo Kante – Conte showed his skills as a defensive strategist.

And while Conte has warned of the need to avoid a “Mourinho season”, a reference to the slide to 16th place that cost the Portuguese his job seven months after Chelsea were crowned champions, there were echoes of a predecessor’s party-pooping prowess. Rewind to May 2014 and, for different reasons, Chelsea fielded a depleted side away at Liverpool who, like Tottenham this weekend, were hot favourites. Each even had an untried centre-back – Tomas Kalas three years ago, Andreas Christensen on Sunday – who excelled.

That was catenaccio, Mourinho style. He denied Liverpool the title. Conte offered an early indication that Tottenham may find the crown similarly elusive. And he illustrated that he has regained his focus, his drive and his brand of alchemy. Forged by earthy values and positional discipline, it is very Italian. But then so is Conte.