Make Chelsea’s a Double: Antonio Conte on the cusp of flawless season
Win the FA Cup on Saturday and Antonio Conte’s debut campaign will be virtually flawless, writes Rich Jolly.
Make Chelsea’s a Double. Antonio Conte did one on Monday. N’Golo Kante did one in the last month. Now the Premier League champions could complete their own on Saturday when they face Arsenal in the FA Cup final.
Antonio Conte, N'Golo Kante, Gary Cahill and the FA Cup trophyEurosport
The Italian secured the Premier League Manager of the Year and LMA Manager of the Year honours. The Frenchman added the Football Writers’ award to its PFA counterpart. The team only need to register their usual win over Arsenal at Wembley to provide further evidence of dominance.
Lift the FA Cup and their only ultimately decisive defeat this season will be a weakened side’s EFL Cup loss to West Ham. Conte’s debut campaign will be virtually flawless. And yet, while there are no prizes for statistical markers, the rarer achievement lay in recording 30 Premier League wins, something that no one else has ever managed. Chelsea themselves have done the Double in the last decade.
Chelsea lift the Premier League trophyGetty Images
And entertaining as Carlo Ancelotti’s prolific side of 2009-10 were, it is hard to sustain the argument that they are Stamford Bridge’s finest team in recent memory. The class of 2011-12 allied FA Cup victory with the most meaningful silverware of all, the Champions League, which was secured in the most memorable manner. The group of 2004-05 did the Jose Mourinho Double of League Cup and League while posting an unrivalled 95 points. They may have exited the FA Cup at Newcastle but they remain the most formidable outfit in Chelsea’s history.
And it highlights how a Double can be better than the Double. The latter can feel an anachronism, and not merely because of the diminishing relevance of the FA Cup, outweighed in importance by any European silverware and increasingly rivalled by its junior sibling. Mourinho has been a trailblazer in deeming the League Cup as equally relevant and far more winnable.
Jose Mourinho manager of Manchester United lifts the trophy in victory alongside Paul Pogba after during the EFL Cup Final between Manchester United and Southampton at Wembley Stadium on February 26, 2017 in London, England. Manchester United beat SouthamGetty Images
The Double owed its pre-eminence to its rarity as well as to a footballing framework that was then altered irrevocably by European competition. Its significance became enhanced because, after Preston’s 1889 Invincibles, in the subsequent seven decades only the Aston Villa team of 1897 emulated them by winning the old Division 1 and the FA Cup. When Tottenham belatedly became the 20th century’s first Double winners in 1961, it was a historic feat. It was also only seven years before the first Double involving continental silverware: Leeds’ League Cup and Uefa Cup haul of 1968.
Now the Double is done more frequently and to lesser fanfare. It was accomplished four times in 97 years up to 1985 and seven in 31 since, highlighting the way trophies are hoovered up by superpowers as the gulf in resources between them and the rest grows.
Nor do the 11 Double winners necessarily stand out as the greatest teams in English football history. Some indisputably belong in that bracket. Others are arguably inferior to their predecessors, successors or peers. Chelsea need only glance across the Wembley pitch on Saturday for evidence. Arsene Wenger is a Double Double-winner but, outstanding as his 1998 and 2002 sides were, his flagship achievement came courtesy of the 2004 Invincibles; they did something no one else had managed for 115 years, not a feat Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United did three times in the 1990s alone.
Arsenal celebrates winning the Premiership title and defeating Leicsester City 15 May, 2004 at Highbury in London. Arsenal defeated Leicester City 2-1 and finish the season undefeatedGetty Images
Retreat further into Arsenal’s past and the 1971 Double looks both an achievement and an anomaly. They were the Gunners’ only domestic trophies between 1953 and 1979. There were finer Liverpool, Leeds, Manchester United, Manchester City and Everton sides in that era, but Arsenal conjured an extra-time winner at Wembley and a late decider in their final league game.
Liverpool’s 1986 Double stands out because it was a remarkable success in Kenny Dalglish’s first season in management; it is nevertheless hard to contend they were a better side than Anfield’s classes of 1984 (the fourth consecutive season they did a Double) and 1988. United’s 1996 Double amounted to a stunning response to the sales of Paul Ince, Mark Hughes and Andrei Kanchelskis, but it still feels something of a transitional team, a bridging point between peaks scaled in 1994 and 1999, carried along by Eric Cantona and Peter Schmeichel.
Peter Schmeichel and Alex Ferguson celebrate Manchester United's 1999 FA Cup win (Reuters)Reuters
And the traditional Double has been superseded by combinations of trophies that involve continental prowess. Nottingham Forest’s 1979 pairing of the League Cup and the European Cup would be a case in point even if Brian Clough’s charges had not been in Division Two just two years earlier. United fans may deride Liverpool’s 2001 ‘Plastic Treble’ of FA, League and UEFA Cups but it remains one no one else has accomplished. Everton’s 1985 exploits of lifting the league title and the Cup Winners’ Cup would have been still greater but for Norman Whiteside’s FA Cup final winner against them.
Eight years earlier, Liverpool were also denied by United in the FA Cup final while winning the league and the European Cup. It means Anfield’s greatest example of multiple trophy-gathering remains the 1984 trinity of Division 1, the League Cup and the European Cup. It ranks second only to the only Treble involving the Double, United’s 1999 triple of Premier League, Champions League and FA Cup. Winning the three senior competitions they entered is something that echoes through the ages; it puts them in a select group of eight European teams, only five of whom plied their trade in the top five domestic leagues.
In contrast, this season could produce double Double winners. Mourinho ends with two trophies, despite coming sixth in the league. Conte could have a pair of his own, but in a year without the workload of European football. It is nevertheless a fantastic feat but not one that automatically confers greatness. Not like it used to.