A little over twelve months ago, Antonio Conte arrived at Stamford Bridge with no illusions about the magnitude of the task in front of him. Shorn of confidence, cohesion, and belief, Chelsea’s crestfallen champions awaited him. It was to be the toughest season of his career, he said so himself.
Having grown bored of the sparse international schedule, Conte was relishing the prospect of getting back to the day-to-day grind of club football, and he was also relishing the prospect of cleaning up yet another disaster site, just as he did with Juventus in 2011. But he knew the task wouldn’t be easy. There were no quick fixes and Chelsea were set to enter the season with largely the same squad as before.
He talked a lot about work. Work work work. And improvement. And more work. And then more work. It’s the only word he knew, work. And fight. And proper attitudes and commitment. Mixed results early did nothing to brighten the situation, with an exasperated Conte post-Arsenal claiming he had no magic wand to fix the problems.
That’s probably the only thing he was ever wrong about.
Twelve months later, we appear to be no better off. The squad has gotten younger, but not bigger and probably not better. While the injuries to Hazard and Bakayoko are certainly exacerbating the situation, the task at hand appears to be even harder. Chelsea’s rivals have gotten stronger (except for Spurs); Chelsea’s schedule has gotten busier and thus more difficult. The transfer market is out of control, and Conte’s back to saying the same things as when Chelsea finished tenth.
“For me this will be the most difficult season of my career as a coach. Why? For many reasons. It’s very difficult. I have this perception and I hope I’ve made a mistake.
“This is the reality. At this moment, we have a small squad. Everyone can see the situation, not because the coach shouts, ‘I want this’, or, ‘I want this’. The situation is very clear.
“We are trying to improve this situation. I don’t know why enough players have not been signed. Everyone is trying to do their job but I think this question is for the club, not for me. We have to wait for the best solution.”
In his time at Chelsea, Conte’s often talked about making the right signings for the right prices and the right positions. One gets the feeling he’s not so wedded to the middle part of that mantra anymore, especially not when £40-50m is the new reality. When Danny Drinkwater’s being talked about as a realistic possibility for fourth midfielder at £40m, the previous valuation-charts have to be thrown out.
Conte openly talking about the club not signing enough players will of course set off the usual alarm bells. He’s walked out on both of his previous jobs in club management over similar issues, one of them not long after signing a new contract. But, as he says, he’s learning to be patient.
“The best way for the coach and the players is not to think about this situation and to be focused, to work. To make an excuse is not the right way. My job is to work, improve my players, to create a team and an identity for my team.
“Am I a patient man? You are putting me in great difficulty with this question. In Italy people know I have not got great patience. But I am learning in England to be more patient.”
Last season, Chelsea signed two players in the last two days of the transfer window who ended up being crucial pieces in a title-winning side. We cannot rely on being that lucky again, yet things seem to be trending exactly in that direction. The club teased a new signing before Sunday, but it’s probably safe to say that’s not happening. More recent reports teased a signing before the start of the league season next weekend. Chances are, signings will be teased all the way into the final hours of the window.
Meanwhile, football’s nigh and there are games to be won.
“We must always have a dream, to try to be competitive and fight for the title. We must be ready and open for every situation, if players arrive to improve the squad, or if not.
“I don’t want to look at other teams, if they strengthen or not. The best way for us is to look at ourselves, try to improve our team and continue to improve this mentality because we created a strong mentality in this team.”
Conte’s saying many of the same things he was saying last summer, but we probably expected to have moved beyond and above that by now. Is he just level setting expectations? Is he putting pressure on the Board? On himself?
“I do not feel under more pressure than last year. The pressure is always the same. If I don’t feel pressure then I put myself under pressure, that’s my life. The pressure helps me to give the best, 120 per cent.”
-Antonio Conte; source: Express
When he signed his new contract, Conte talked about building something special for the future. Given that real life isn’t your FM save where problems are solved at the click of a button, should we be expecting better or should we sympathize with those whose jobs have been made orders of magnitude tougher since Abramovich first waltzed into football with his millions? Everybody’s saying the right things, but the expected outcome isn’t happening.
Sounds like we all need to do a bit more work work work...