What's it like to train as a Chelsea player? Inside Conte's fitness regime
If Friday's 2-1 defeat to Liverpool illustrated that the Chelsea squad still have some way to go in terms getting up to speed with manager Antonio Conte's tactical ideal, it at least showed they're in tune with his immense physical demands. The home side started the game poorly but ended it running hard, just as they've done in every match this season.
Had Chelsea claimed an equaliser, it would have extended quite a record: Five of the 10 goals scored by Conte's side in their opening five games have come after the 80-minute mark. Two, against West Ham and Watford, proved to be outright match-winners while another, vs. Swansea, saved a point.
It's a sign that Conte has his squad in tip-top shape, at least for this stage of the season, and that his players' fitness perhaps has overcome other weaknesses until the players are entirely at ease with their manager's tactics.
The goals conceded against Liverpool and Swansea showed Chelsea are not totally in tune with their manager's defensive organisation, particularly the necessity of a high line. Plus, there are times when Conte's coordinated attack can seem rushed rather than relentless.
The combination of fitness and tactics are fundamental to the Italian's approach to management and, by extension, the success he has enjoyed. Conte may have earned respect for his innovative methods regarding how he sets up his teams, but he would not have been able to apply to them without a distinctive physical approach.
"I want to play with high intensity, to win the ball back very soon after we lose it, to attack with the right balance," said Conte before the season began.
This is a manager, who has spoken about how he wants his players to "eat grass" and "sweat blood." In other words, to work until they drop, but then be ready to work again.
How does Conte do it?
High-intensity fitness drills, in which extreme work is done in a short but concentrated space of time, are the basis for Conte's fitness philosophy. Sources have described the training as "gruelling" and a look at just one of the regular drills reveals how much is demanded of players:
Run 100 metres within 20 seconds; rest for 20 seconds -- repeat for seven minutes.
Run 75 metres within 15 seconds; rest for 15 seconds -- repeat for seven minutes.
Run 50 metres within 10 seconds; rest for 10 seconds -- repeat for seven minutes.
ESPN FC pundit Don Hutchison is a former professional who is still at a good level of fitness and has been through some testing preseasons.
"I've had altitude training in Salt Lake City with Coventry; that was horrendous," he said. "Army boot camp at Hartlepool; that was even worse. Liverpool's wasn't too bad, but at West Ham we used to do lots of long-distance running and then, as the weeks went on toward the start of the season, it would turn into sprinting work. So, over the years, I've had some brutal ones."
Hutchison went through these Conte drills and it is telling that he considered them as tough as anything he has seen before, in terms of demand on the body.
"Harder than what I thought it would be, to be honest," Hutchison said. "When I set off for the first one, I thought 'not too bad,' then I had 20 seconds' rest, went again and, after four or five, I could feel my chest pumping and all of a sudden I could feel the lactic acid creeping into in my calf muscles and my hamstring and my quads... that was tough."
Conte is not alone when it comes to this approach to fitness: Two of his rivals for the top four -- and possibly for the Premier League title -- have similar principles.
Jurgen Klopp had triple sessions in Liverpool's preseason, an approach that sources say left many of his players so exhausted that they would sleep in hotel rooms rather than go home in between.
Meanwhile, Ben Davies has revealed that his international teammates are often "stunned" when Tottenham players tell them of Mauricio Pochettino's fitness regime.
As for Chelsea, Conte has set his stall out and those late goals are the early dividends. Defender Gary Cahill described his most recent preseason as one of the "hardest" he's ever experienced, but in the long run, it could make Chelsea very difficult to outlast as the season goes on.
Miguel Delaney covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MiguelDelaney.