Antonio Conte has responded to José Mourinho’s insinuations that Chelsea are a defensive team by offering an insight into his methods on the training ground and insisting that he is not a coach who focuses on counterattacking football.
Mourinho recently said he has spotted a change in England, wryly noting: “It looks like this season that to be phenomenal defensively and good in counterattack is art.” The Manchester United manager, whose style of play has often been criticised for being too negative in the past, has appeared to be frustrated by the plaudits for Conte, despite not mentioning the man who now occupies the role he once had at Chelsea by name.
Yet while Chelsea have the joint best defensive record in the Premier League, having conceded 20 goals in 27 matches, they are 10 points clear at the top of the table and will move a step closer towards winning the Double in Conte’s first season in English football if they win their FA Cup quarter-final against United on Monday night. Chelsea have scored 57 goals in the league, 18 more than United, who were beaten 4-0 at Stamford Bridge in October.
Chelsea’s forwards have flourished this season, with Eden Hazard inspired and Diego Costa scoring 18 goals in all competitions, and Conte wanted to set the record straight when the discussion turned to his team’s aesthetic qualities.
“I have to tell you one thing,” the Italian said. “Not only here … but I never, ever, ever train for the counterattack. Never prepare for the counterattack. Never. I think the counterattack is an option, above all, if you have this type of player, players who are very, very fast. Also Costa is a counterattacking man, and Willian and Pedro.
“It’s normal to have this situation with space, so they know what they can do. For me, it’s important to train the other aspects: when we have the ball, when we stay almost always in our opponents’ half, to prepare when we are attacking. It’s very difficult to train counterattacking but it’s not my priority.”
Conte explained that he prefers to squeeze opponents high up the pitch if possible. Above all, though, he wants his team to be adaptable. “There are different situations in games,” Chelsea’s manager said. “You have to be prepared to play in different parts of the pitch.
“If you stay for 70 minutes in your opponents’ half, you must know what to do, otherwise you are in trouble. Sometimes you find teams who force you to defend in your own half and you have to know how to react in this moment. You train for situations and it’s important to have players who are prepared for this situation.”
United will be without the suspended Zlatan Ibrahimovic, while Wayne Rooney, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial are also ruled-out. They also had little time to recover from last Thursday’s 1-1 draw with Rostov in the first leg of their last-16 Europa League tie and host the Russian club three days after the trip to Stamford Bridge. Yet Conte expects Mourinho to play a strong side and brushed aside suggestions that the timing of tonight’s game gives Chelsea an advantage. “There are four days to recover and this game is an important game for us, for them,” he said. “We could play also Sunday or Saturday, if the federation decided it, but we are playing on Monday. The federation showed great respect for Manchester United to play the last day available for the FA Cup.”
Despite the sense of edge between the pair, Conte praised Mourinho’s achievements across his two spells at Chelsea.
“José Mourinho wrote a good part of the history of Chelsea,” he said. “It’s important, always, not to forget this. I have great respect for him because he’s a winner. I like his mentality. He has a winning mentality. He’s one of the best in the world and, here, he did a great job. I think every single fan must respect him.”