“I consider defeat to be a state of virtual death.”
Antonio Conte has an obsessive, and almost chronic, desire to win. So much so that he named his daughter Vittoria. According to Andrea Pirlo, the former Juventus and Italy manager stays up until three to four in the morning studying videos, searching for the keys to the victory he so compulsively desires.
His pathological lust for winning breeds a mentality that those in Italy call grinta, or grit in English. It’s the backbone and spine of many winning sides in football, but none can arguably claim to embody it as much as Antonio Conte’s sides do. Ironically, one of the attributes the reigning champions, Chelsea, lacked last season was grinta, so it will be interesting to see how a team formerly dominated by big dressing room personalities will cope with the arrival of il martello, or “the hammer”.
One player that personifies grinta is that of Diego Costa, a player that now looks even more terrifying with his newly grown out beard. Hustling and harrying defenders is Costa’s bread and butter, and the tightrope of legality within the game that he walks upon has been hit with a gust of wind, following the new FA rules on how players and referees can interact. Despite almost always being a possible liability, Costa is a player that has all the ability and characteristics to be Chelsea’s and Conte’s ideal centre-forward. Although rumours of a return to Stamford Bridge for Romelu Lukaku persist, Chelsea would be foolish to let go of Costa just yet.
Up first for Conte and Chelsea came West Ham, a side that exceeded expectations last season and one that will be looking to take a further step forward again. Whilst the Hammers invested heavily in their frontline, with the likes of André Ayew, Gokhan Töre and Sofiane Feghouli, they have so far failed to address their backline the level that it needs addressing. Only former Olympiacos left-back Arthur Masuaku has been brought in, which, as of now, leaves the options at the centre-half stretched very thin. Almost mirroring this, Chelsea have failed to adequately address their lack of top level centre-half options, for now at least.
Despite the excitement, the ticker tape and the firework-infused presentations, the game started with much of what Chelsea fans would have been familiar of last season. Chelsea spent much of the opening ten minutes pegged back in their own half, as they dropped off a pressing West Ham team, simply look not to give too much away early on.
Starting in a 4-1-4-1 formation, throughout the match Chelsea tended to shift into a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Nemanja Matić dropping in alongside N’Golo Kanté to cover the centre-halves. In the expectant build-up for Conte’s Premier League debut, much has been made of what formation he would start with. Whilst many were under the impression that he would opt for a 3-5-2 formation, the much likelier 4-1-4-1/4-2-3-1 was the inevitable choice. With 3-5-2 simply not fitting a squad that lacks three top class centre-halves, it simply wouldn’t be a realistic option for the Chelsea squad at the moment.
In Conte’s own words: “I always compare my work as a coach, to that of a tailor, who makes a suit out of the material available to him. He can only do what the material allows him to do.”
As the game wore on Chelsea eased into a comfortable level of control, with the five-man midfield’s superior numbers beginning to take its toll on West Ham. It wasn’t until the second-half, though, that Chelsea took the lead through the thoroughly impressive Eden Hazard. Fans, players, staff and Russian oligarchs alike will all be delighted that the Belgian has started the campaign well, as he could be the figure that makes or breaks Chelsea’s season. Without him on form, Chelsea tend to find it hard to build-up play from deep and hard to create, but against West Ham there were no such problems.
Throughout the match Hazard looked hungry to score and even hungrier for redemption, following last season. Shifting through the gears, Hazard had Michail Antonio on toast until the winger-turned-right-back was subbed off for flooring César Azpilicueta in the penalty area and promptly picking up a yellow card. Although, following West Ham’s equaliser late on in the game, with Chelsea now on the hunt for a winner, Conte opted to substitute Hazard for Victor Moses, a move that not all managers would have the balls to do in their first game, in a new league, in front of 40,000 expectant fans and brooding and notoriously trigger happy owner. Antonio Conte truly has bigger cojones than you or I.
Fittingly, it was in fact Mr. Grinta himself who made the headlines and won the game. Taking the ball down in the 88th minute from a Batshuayi knocked-on header, Costa found space to shoot from 20 yards out and rifled in a shot through the legs of James Collins and past a sprawling Adrián. Following the goal Conte celebrated in a manner that befitted his maniacal obsession with winning. Leaping into the air and fist pumping the sky, Conte proceeded to sprint down the touchline and embrace with a fan in the stands, the pure joy on his face almost certainly relief that all those late nights spent watching and studying West Ham in anticipation for his Premier League debut were not wasted.