Chelsea laying claim to Barcelona legacy with Conte's masterstroke
When the grand masters of the game start complimenting your style, you must be doing something right. Dan Levene on the early signs of greatness in Antonio Conte's Chelsea.
Antonio Conte may have needed the significance explained to him when veteran BBC man John Motson called it the best 90-minute performance he had ever seen in the Premier League. Such explanations would not, however, have been required when one closer to events at Stamford Bridge gave his own appraisal.
“I have never seen a team so strong with this system,” is weighty enough praise, but when it comes from Ronald Koeman it takes the eulogy to a whole new level.
Not even because Koeman was the vanquished party in that humbling – giving a sheepish grin as his first greeting to reporters when he spoke post-match - but because Koeman was a central part of arguably the greatest ever exponents of the 3-4-3 that Conte uses at Chelsea.
The Everton boss was, of course, in the heart of the much-missed Johan Cruyff's early 90s Barcelona side – dubbed by many the 'Dream Team'. The two Dutchmen, as player and manager, won four consecutive La Liga titles together with Koeman working terrier-like from defence through midfield, scoring for fun in the process. There was also a European Cup – Koeman's goal the only one in 120 minutes against Sampdoria on May 20, 1992.
All of this history is for the purpose of perspective: that side did as much as any to frame the future of football as we now know it.
Paris' David Ginola (R) is tackled by Barcelona's Ronald Koeman, as Pep Guardiola looks onAFP
Pep Guardiola, who played the N'Golo Kante role, if you like, ahead of Koeman's David Luiz sweeper position that night at Wembley, would later describe Cruyff's vision as the Sistine Chapel fresco – only latterly re-touched by the coaches who succeeded him at Camp Nou.
When the old master picks out the new master, you have to take note. But the question that Koeman left hanging with that comment is this: is he really calling this Chelsea side the best ever at enacting a system he is so personally known for making work? While his adulation is real, he seems to stop just short of making that claim.
When asked about his greatest ever regret, Paul McCartney once joked that it was to have never been able to see The Beatles play, and Koeman looks to be coming from a similar direction.
Nevertheless, Chelsea are presently making Conte's 3-4-3 look effortless. That, in itself, is a huge achievement because, as the Toffees' manager also conceded, his own side tried the same in that drubbing and made it look the hardest thing ever.
Dutch former FC Barcelona coach Johan Cruyff gives instructions to his former "Dream Team" players (L-R) Bulgarian Hristo Stoichkov, Dutch players Ronald Koeman and Richard Witchge during a trainning session at FC Barcelona's trainning grounds March 9Reuters
The system is infrequently tried and it has long been unfashionable for one reason more than any other: it is very hard to execute. When it comes off it is a marvel, as Cruyff showed with Barcelona, and as Chelsea are starting to show under Conte.
Koeman was a great player and, though clearly a very good manager, he points the finger at that old defensive midfield team-mate of his as the very best of them all. Guardiola was even closer to the very germ of the Dream Team's greatness than Koeman – and it is against his footballing vision that Conte will therefore be most acutely judged.
At lunchtime on Saturday December 3, on a field to the east of Manchester city centre, the two will come up against each other: Conte's Cruyff tribute act, and Guardiola's latest attempt to recreate the original from the dugout.
That is already starting to look like a pivotal point for both sides in this evolving season, and it could provide an early nod to which of the sides may be the most fit to inherit that Barcelona 'Dream Team' epithet in seasons to come.