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How Past Failures Are Fuelling Antonio Conte's Chelsea Revolution
As Chelsea's season gradually petered out in 2015/16, GuusHiddink remained adamant he was targeting European qualification for the club.
The Blues were already out of the Premier League title race by the time he returned for a second spell as interim manager, replacing the sacked Jose Mourinho in December.
The FA Cup and UEFA Champions League were the Dutchman's only opportunities of silverware that would have provided European football for this season, while Chelsea had an outside shot of qualifying through the Premier League.
As such, the debate that ensued was: Given Chelsea's position, would it benefit the club to take a year out of Europe, thus playing less games and focusing on developing a team to serve beyond one season?
The collapse that had followed Chelsea winning the 2014/15 title told us the issues were many. It wasn't surface damage, but something that ran much deeper. There was an imbalance brought about by years of hiring and firing managers who had signed players to suit their systems.
It was all disjointed, and the notion was that Chelsea needed some time out in order to put things right. In boxing terms, they needed to lean on the ropes for a few rounds, accept a few blows to their ego, but take the breather to come back stronger in the later rounds.
A footballing man to his core, Hiddink couldn't fathom that. For him, any sort of legacy he would leave behind wouldn't look good—on paper at least—if he led Chelsea out of European competition for the first time in two decades.
"It's not Chelsea standard to be happy to be out of the relegation zone, and sit back and relax a bit," Hiddink said in March after the Blues defeated Norwich City 2-1 at Carrow Road. That victory extended a good spell of form and continued their rise up the table, away from the bottom half where they had spent too much time for comfort.
"We have to set new targets now with the ambition of Chelsea in the direction of Europe," Hiddink continued. "[...] We'd like to go as high as possible towards the European spots."
Chelsea never would. Come the end of the season, they finished in 10th place with no silverware. Hiddink's European dream was gone. Out of darkness comes light, however; that failure was actually the Dutchman's biggest success. It was the best possible gift he could give Antonio Conte when he was unveiled as Chelsea's new boss in July.
Now, six months on from when Hiddink left the club, Chelsea are back looking down at the rest of the Premier League. They're the outright leaders, setting the pace on the back of an astonishing run of form that has seen them win seven games on the bounce.
Now Chelsea's players are acknowledging the benefits of not competing on all fronts this year.
"We have one week to prepare for the game and at the end of the week we know what to do when we play," Eden Hazard said after Chelsea's 2-1 victory over Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday, per MailOnline.
That Spurs had dominated the game in the first half but still went on to lose was a case in point. Mauricio Pochettino's side seemed to run out of steam and, importantly, ideas, after the interval. They didn't seem to cope as efficiently over the 90 minutes as Chelsea did, something that playing in the Champions League midweek surely didn't help with.
While Chelsea were analysing video and being drilled on their tactics, Spurs were suffering defeat at the hands of AS Monaco. They had to travel to the south of France for the privilege.
That fact was alluded to by Hazard, who added: "Last year [when Chelsea were in the Champions League], we were just doing recovery so we weren't always ready for the game, but that's not the case now. We are concentrating on the opposition during the week and give everything.
"We do lots of tactical work and video work, it depends who we are playing. We do everything to be prepared."
It's exactly how Chelsea appear under Conte—prepared. After 13 league games in charge, the manager's methods are taking hold. Those days from last season that were spent in recovery are becoming refined training sessions, giving a coach of the Italian's quality that rare commodity in the modern game; time to work with his players throughout the season.
Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola hasn't had that luxury, nor has Jose Mourinho at Manchester United. Both managers took up new roles this summer and since pre-season they've been juggling busy schedules with a desire to imprint their philosophy.
They're at different ends of the scale in terms of the success we've seen from both, but each manager is still working to get their players in tune with their way of thinking. Of course, 13 matches is still embryonic, although no other manager this season has made the sort of impact Conte has.
His change of system and how Chelsea's players have adapted so rapidly has been a surprise, yet Hazard's view post-Spurs tells us that it shouldn't be. What we're seeing now is what we should expect when world-class coaches have time to work with world-class players.
In that sense, failure to achieve last year is fuelling Chelsea's success in the present.
Indeed, it's a notion that also impacts elsewhere at Stamford Bridge. Victor Moses has been part of a Nigeria side that didn't qualify for the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations. As disappointing as that would have been for him, that failure is only going to benefit Chelsea's title challenge.
While the likes of Senegal's Sadio Mane will be missing from the Liverpool squad in the new year, Moses will be on Chelsea's right side, working up and down the wing with the same intensity and productivity we have seen this term.
Conte's side is going to be without disruption, building on the momentum that has taken hold since late September.
Like his Chelsea counterpart, Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp has the benefit of no European football to contend with. Regardless, however, he could do without a player such as Mane, who has been vital to his team's own pursuit of glory, upping and leaving in midseason.
It's a footballing paradox: From being English football's biggest failures last season, Chelsea are actually the club winning most right now.