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How Antonio Conte saved Chelsea from overpaying for and lying to last-minute signings

Flogging the dead horse of the summer transfer window

England v Slovakia - FIFA 2018 World Cup Qualifier Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

As we continue to pick through the carcass of the summer transfer window — with proper football still a few days away, there isn't much else to do, in fairness — we continue to see reports of continued disagreements over transfer targets between various stakeholders at Chelsea, namely the Board, the technical director, and the head coach. Constructive disagreements and debates are of course part of any professional setting — the key is how the various parties work through them — but that wouldn't make for good headiness and stories. So we get rumors of continued discord instead.

The stories, first started by the club positioning itself under a proverbial ‘MISSION ACCOMPLISHED’ banner via the Telegraph, mostly concern themselves with Ross Barkley and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and how Chelsea managed to snatch failure out of what seemed like surefire transfer success. This was hardly the first time that has happened, not just this summer, but if we are to believe a bunch of these stories, these latest failures are being pinned on Conte rather than the Board dragging things out to the last minute like they (almost) always do — sometimes to great effect (see: 2016), sometimes less so (see: 2015).

Adding to the Telegraph’s insinuations is more concrete reporting from the Times, which claims that Conte scared away Oxlade-Chamberlain by telling him the truth about where he would be playing — i.e. wing-back, not central midfield. (Because apparently the key to successful transfer business is lying to your new players?)

But that’s not the most baffling part yet as apparently in response to this public failure, Chelsea decided to “keep Conte away” from the Barkley negotiations. But that backfired as well as apparently Barkley wanted to talk to Conte, couldn’t, and so he turned around before ever getting to London. Or something. Shocking, I know, that a prospective player would want to at least have a chat with the coach before joining! It was at least a “partial influence”, says the Times, though if we read between the lines of the previous Barkley stories and his own tweets, it’s pretty clear that he wanted and still wants to go to Spurs instead, with whom Everton refused to negotiate last month. So instead, Barkley’s holding out until Everton has no say in where he goes. Chelsea are looking to make another move as well in January, which at least makes a bit more sense than trying to overpay for him now when he’s injured.

Not sure what to make of all this jumbled nonsense. In an ideal world, the head coach (Conte) and the technical director (Emenalo) and the people responsible for negotiations (Granovskaia and her team) would be working in tandem to identify the correct targets and then get them signed, if possible, at reasonable terms. It’s clear that this process isn’t working ideally, though expectations for perfection may be unreasonable, as they may be in most similar settings.

When we consider that short shelf-life of the average Chelsea head coach, it makes plenty of sense to operate under the sporting director model, but the coach still shouldn’t be cut out of the process. This should be an obvious truism. And it should be added that the likes of Morata and Bakayoko can be safely called Conte targets and Chelsea getting them in should be seen as the process working well (despite all the Lukaku sidetracks — though we didn’t actually bid there until the very end).

Oxlade-Chamberlain was supposedly a Conte target, too, but it would appear that the player himself had other ideas. It happens. Barkley was quite clearly not a Conte target, but it would appear that the player himself had other ideas. It happens. The Times adds that Conte and Drinkwater didn’t speak on deadline day, but that seems like useless detail. Did they not speak at all? Did Conte agree on Drinkwater as a target? We pursued long enough to give plenty of opportunity for both of those things to happen.

This game of transfers, like the game of thrones, is a convoluted, complicated, bloody business. (And then you go on to either win, or die get sacked.) We can acknowledge that without necessarily looking to place blame on anyone, but that’s not interesting enough and unfortunately somebody (the club? agents?) are playing right into their hands by sourcing reports such as this one from the Times or the previous one we mentioned from the Telegraph.

Chelsea are famously tight-lipped (at least via official public channels) about transfers and other associated business, which is fine, but after many months of promising many signings and failing to deliver completely, instead of taking responsibility, we appear to blaming the coach instead. And that seems as baffling as it is unproductive and unhelpful. We should be working towards palpable accord, not palpable discord.

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