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Rome wasn't built in a day: Conte's first five games and substitution patterns put into perspective

Experiencing their first loss early in the season could be the best medicine for our players, our coach, and our club. Plus: y'all need to chill.

Steve Bardens/Getty Images

Amidst an untimely loss to Liverpool – seemingly selected by both the media and supporters as a litmus test determining if the exorcism of the 2015/16 season proved successful, or if the demons still lingered beneath the surface of Chelsea Football Club – individual failings left many understandably angry. Frustrations directed at the club, coach, and players danced across Twitter timelines as gracefully as a herd of stampeding wildebeests.

This brought on a wonderful rendition of what we'll call "Overreaction Theatre."

Pitchforks! Petitions! Boycotts! Before a vocal minority finalizes booking a one-way ticket for Antonio's return to Italy and busting out the Guus-Signal, perhaps it's time for a pause. Let's take a moment to step back from the instant gratification of venting irradiated tweets into unsuspecting timelines. We now have a chance to apply context to our situation and review why we're truly upset.

Succes (See: Recency)

We're five games into the 2016/17 Premier League season, Antonio Conte delivered three wins, a draw, and a single loss to a well coached opponent. This start earned us 10 points, a plus-four goal difference, and a fifth place spot in the table. For many fans, it wasn't enough, but it is more likely due to the success over the last two decades than Conte's actual results.

In the past 20 seasons, Chelsea finished their first five games earning 11 or more points 12 times – close to 60 percent. We've seen anywhere from 1st to 6th places finishes in these scenarios. For the five seasons where we started at nine points or less after five matches, Chelsea finished in 3rd, 6th, or 10th place.

This season, in addition to three others, Chelsea completed their first five games earning 10 points. In those completed seasons kicked off with 10-point starts, the Blues ended in 2nd, 3rd, and 6th positions. We've been conditioned to strong starts, and protected by Abramovich's uncompromising pursuit of success (and subsequent willingness to swing the axe when weakness rears its head). Much like a child takes after their parents, we too have become so used to winning that it feels less like a reward, and more like a divine right.

First Five Games, Points over Chelsea's Last 21 Seasons
Season Manager GW1 GW2 GW3 GW4 GW5 Total Points End of Season Position
2016/17 Antonio Conte W W W D L 10 ???
2015/16 Jose Mourinho D L W L L 4 10th
2014/15 Jose Mourinho W W W W D 13 1st
2013/14 Jose Mourinho W W D L W 10 3rd
2012/13 Roberto Di Matteo W W W D W 13 3rd
2011/12 Andre Villas-Boas D W W W L 10 6th
2010/11 Carlo Ancelotti W W W W W 15 2nd
2009/10 Carlo Ancelotti W W W W W 15 1st
2008/09 Luiz Felipe Scolari W W D W D 11 3rd
2007/08 Jose Mourinho W W D W L 10 2nd
2006/07 Jose Mourinho W L W W W 12 2nd
2005/06 Jose Mourinho W W W W W 15 1st
2004/05 Jose Mourinho W W W W D 12 1st
2003/04 Claudio Ranieri W W D W W 13 2nd
2002/03 Claudio Ranieri W D D D W 9 4th
2001/02 Claudio Ranieri D W D W D 6 6th
2000/01 Gianluca Vialli W L D D D 6 6th
1999/00 Gianluca Vialli W D W W W 13 5th
1998/99 Ginaluca Vialli L D D W W 8 3rd
1997/98 Ruud Gullit L W W W W 12 4th
1996/97 Ruud Gullit D W W D W 11 6th
Average ~11

Even after the shocking start to the last season, the expectation that an appearance by our manager on the touchline and players on the pitch guarantees three points remains part of club and supporters' DNA. If you're going out not expecting Conte to mismanage a few matches – as he takes on the Herculean trial of restoring a 10th place squad of individuals to both a team and a European powerhouse –  we should just place a computer with Football Manager 17 installed, dressed in a fitted suit, on the touchline.

Cruel, Unforgiving, Hope

Similar to the club's recent success, Conte, clad in the grey, black, and highlighter yellow of our training polo with the logo of everyone's favorite energy drink adorning his chest, won over fans before conducting his first training session at Cobham. Perfumed in the swagger of willing the underdog Italian national team to unanticipated success in the Euros, we collectively thought and hoped: "If he did it with Italy, he can do it with us!"

Even before the first minutes of pre-season took place, hope began to spring once again within the hearts of Chelsea fans. So when Conte won his first Premier League game in charge of the Blues, followed by a second win and a third in the Football League Cup, we dared to dream. He delivered four straight wins, which is something we'd wished for starting this season, but it wasn't the expectation. We were back!

But, not quite. We drew against Swansea City in a poorly officiated match, opening the door for excuses as to why we dropped two points. Then we got exposed by Liverpool on a Friday night and the bubble burst. Much like the Emperor's New Clothes, the Reds awoke us from our living dream to the truest realization. This is still a team with systemic issues, personnel and attitude, which aren't fixed over a International Champions Cup American holiday and by the return of David Luiz.

We all not-so-secretly wished, after our initial run, that Chelsea could in fact rival Manchester City and the Pep-o-lution today. We didn't want to accept a reality where Chelsea were fighting for a fourth place spot, and the return to Champions League football.

No Easy-Bake Oven solution for our side. Conte's is engaged in a long cook – brisket from Franklin's Barbeque style – to return us to glory, and our expectations need to be aligned with the coach and the club.


With Conte offering solutions through substitutions in our first we games – turning defeats into draws and draws into wins – he looked as if he hadn't just bench Cesc; he'd stolen his magic hat too. But when three substitutions were made in the dying moments of the match against Liverpool (6 minutes plus stoppage time remaining), fans fixated on Conte's mishandling these player adjustments when contemplating the loss. Just as much as the selection and timeliness of these subs were called into question now, we applauded Conte for his success in the previous games for these same reasons.

Perhaps the issue isn't the deployment of subs, but rather the selection of the starting XI that remains a bigger identity crisis for Conte and Chelsea. That's a series of essays I'll lasso Joe Tweeds into writing with me, but we must also review Conte's pattern for substitutions. Here's Conte's three seasons in charge of Juventus and all 38 matches in each Serie A season when it comes to the use of subs and when they appear. (Thanks, TransferMarkt!)

Number of Subsitutions Used by Conte at Juventus (All Serie A Matches)
Time 2011/12 2012/13 2013/14 Total Per Time Range
0'-39' 4 3 3 10
40'-49' 5 4 2 11
50'-59' 17 14 7 38
60'-69' 25 28 20 73
70'-79' 32 38 32 100
80'-89' 27 22 41 90
90'-FT 4 4 5 13
Unused 0 1 4 5
Total Subs 114 113 110 342

Almost 60 percent of all Conte's substitutions came after the 70'. If you were hoping for a coach or manager willing to make changes prior to the 60', it really isn't happening. Conte seemed to wait even longer in his final season compared to his first two years at Juventus. It's worth mentioning that, in each of these seasons, he won their league.

Conte will need to learn what to expect of our players – who should start, who should sit, who fades after how long – but we should also understand who he is. He will not be moved to make substitutions because we belief it needs to happen. Conte even highlighted his thoughts in the post-match press conference:

"In the second half we started with the same players and you saw another game, with great intensity. We scored the goal and created chances so for this reason I waited to make the substitutions. In the last 10 minutes I changed three players to try to give freshness and change the result."

"In that moment I had to decide whether or not to put two wingers in. I wanted to change a midfielder to put Fabregas on but it could have been Batshuayi and not either Moses or Pedro. I needed to put Hazard closer to Diego."

- Antonio Conte; source: Chelsea FC

Time To Chill

We're headed into a tough string of games – Leicester away, Arsenal away, Hull City away, Leicester home, and Manchester United home – over the next month. As much as it will test Conte and our players, we will be tested as supporters. We can't expect to win every single one of these games. As much as I wouldn't want to see us lose any, it might happen. Here's a the supporters' prescription for the next few weeks:

  • Take solace in the fact we dominate Arsenal.
  • Realize that Conte, just like us, still hasn't figured out the best starting XI.
  • Come to terms with the idea that, while a title challenge would be nice, top four remains the club's target.
  • Accept that Conte just doesn't like early subs.
  • Enjoy supporting the best team, not only in the Premier League, but in the world.

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