Chelsea's title challenge built on Antonio Conte's bond with his players
LONDON -- As Stamford Bridge celebrated Chelsea's crucial 2-1 victory over Tottenham Hotspur after the referee's final whistle Saturday, David Luiz gave manager Antonio Conte a bear hug in the middle of the pitch before lifting his manager off his feet.
Sometimes it is the little things, the seemingly insignificant moments, that ultimately shed light on the true mood of a football club, and Luiz's display of affection for Conte left those who witnessed it in no doubt about the newfound harmony that is propelling Chelsea's title challenge.
Rio Ferdinand, speaking as a television pundit after the game, made note of the "togetherness" within the Chelsea team that enabled them to overturn Christian Eriksen's 11th-minute opener to claim a seventh successive Premier League win ahead of next Saturday's top-of-the-table clash with Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium.
Unity is now the watchword at Chelsea, a year after division under Jose Mourinho sent the then-reigning champions into a disastrous tailspin which cost the Portuguese his job and left the likes of Eden Hazard, Diego Costa and Nemanja Matic resembling pale shadows of their title-winning selves.
For all of the focus on Conte's decision to revert to his favoured three-man defence after seeing his team ship five goals in back-to-back defeats against Liverpool and Arsenal, the real key to Chelsea's revival has been the bond that the Italian has been able to forge with his players.
Conte is only 16 games into his career as Chelsea manager, but the biggest tribute that can be paid to the former Juventus coach is that it is already his team.
There is no sense of it being the remnants of Mourinho's team, even though the majority of the squad was put in place by the "Special One," because Conte has quickly imposed his personality and methods on a squad of demanding winners. The sign of the total respect he has already secured from his players was evident in Luiz's embrace of Conte. He may be manic on the touchline, and he is constantly barking out orders, but the players have bought into his philosophy, not just because it works but because of his willingness to reward them for delivering.
The switch to three at the back masks the work Conte has done elsewhere, however, to make Chelsea contenders again, even if the manager is refusing to talk up those aspirations.
"It's too early to talk of the title," he said. "This league is very tough. Tottenham showed in this league there are six or seven teams that can win the title.
"It's important to continue in this way and improve the confidence, but it is also important to win the next game against City."
The Conte plan is working, though, and there are several reasons why.
N'Golo Kante's presence at the hub of midfield has given Matic a new lease of life by allowing the Serbian to roam forward and create as well as destroy. Last season, Matic was unable to do so with Cesc Fabregas alongside him in midfield due to the Spaniard's inability to perform his defensive duties to the standard required. As a result, Matic's confidence evaporated, and Mourinho failed to build it up again, leaving a midfield without a commanding presence.
Conte has rectified that by recruiting Kante, a midfielder with the smothering abilities of an octopus, and his presence has, in turn, provided the protection that has enabled the three-man defence to work.
And with John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic increasingly overlooked by Conte when fit, the more mobile and pacy threesome of Luiz, Cesar Azpilicueta and Gary Cahill have given Chelsea greater athleticism at the back.
Conte has also injected Victor Moses with the confidence and belief that successive Chelsea managers had failed to provide, turning the Nigerian winger into a hugely effective wing-back.
And up front, Costa is arguably the most effective forward in the Premier League -- the Spaniard has scored 10 and created four goals in the league this term -- thanks to Conte telling Hazard to focus less on tracking back and use his talents instead to support and supply his rampaging centre-forward.
There have been subtle tweaks all over the pitch, not just at the back, and the end result is a team of broken morale coming together again to perform as they did when they won the league two years ago.
The cynics might suggest that Conte has inherited a team of champions, so anything but the success he is currently enjoying would be failure. But David Moyes walked into a similarly talented squad when succeeding Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United in 2013, yet the Scot could not make a team of champions believe in his methods as Conte has done at Chelsea.
Footballers -- indeed, elite athletes in general -- are notoriously difficult for any coach to impress. They want to know how the new guy will make them better, and if the initial signs are negative, the coach's battle will be lost before the end of his first team talk.
But Conte has cracked that code on the training pitch by convincing the players of his methods and being steadfast with his insistence that they work. He has not spent huge sums of money on new signings, so he has worked with the team at his disposal. Being able to do so is the sign of a top-class coach.
And in just four months in charge, Conte appears to have earned the affection afforded to Jurgen Klopp by Liverpool's players and the fear that Manchester City's squad have for Pep Guardiola.
It is a healthy combination, but a difficult one to master, and it has made Chelsea serious title challengers.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_