The Antonio Conte Experience hit a brand new low on Wednesday, with a 3-0 humiliation suffered at the hands of relegation-battling AFC Bournemouth at Stamford Bridge. The loss, which echoes a similar result in Carlo Ancelotti’s second season (Sunderland playing the Bournemouth role then), equals Chelsea’s heaviest defeat at home in the Premier League era.
Those who might seek to quantify such matters have claimed that it was the second most shocking result of the Premier League season — only bested by Chelsea’s opening day loss to Burnley, also at home, also while conceding three goals, though in Chelsea’s defense, we had two men sent off. No such mitigating factors on Wednesday; just straight-up embarrassment, and as pointed out, the fourth time Chelsea have suffered such a hugely unexpected reverse (which is then usually interpreted as an “embarrassment” or a “humilation”, two words that we already used in the first two paragraphs in fact).
Those four losses, combined with the continuing struggles against Arsenal, including the League Cup semifinal defeat, as well as all the drama around transfers and control and honest men (or constant complaining, depending on your interpretation), has resulted in a growing sense of tension and unease about the place. Gone are the happy days of yesteryear, here comes palpable discord once again.
While the players seem to be fully behind the coach (Drinkwater, Cahill both said things to that effect in the last few days, for example), the Bridge still sings “Antonioooo, Antoniooo” regularly if not quite with the frequency of last season, and even a few squad reinforcements have arrived (Giroud for Batshuayi, Emerson for Kenedy are surely upgrades that Conte will appreciate), the accepted narrative has become that Conte is a goner. Whether by force or choice, he will not be here next season. That’s a narrative we’ve heard many times before, but, thanks in part to the mixed results in January, it’s not letting up at the moment.
That said, similar reports in the Guardian and Telegraph both express hope from the club’s side of the situation that we can at least see things through to the end of the season without any further major drama.
But there are currently no plans to sack [Conte] during the final months of the campaign, with a mutual parting of the ways once the season has finished a more likely scenario. Whether that changes if Chelsea go through a bad run of results remains to be seen.
Chelsea remain alive in the FA Cup and we can always hope for another Champions League miracle, but the top four finish seems to be causing fresh concern, especially with Conte deeming that alone a great struggle and a great success if achieved. As harshly true as that may be in this era of Top Six — both Conte and Mourinho spoke about this in recent years — the minimum expectation at Chelsea is the top four, regardless of circumstance. Just another misaligned edge this season between club and coach.
We’ve been here before. Ancelotti, Mourinho, Conte, the title-hangover. What has happened before will happen again. It is known. And no one will remember and it will happen again. Short-termism rules the day, the league, the sport, the world.
You never truly know in football of course, and if, for example, Chelsea go unbeaten from now until the summer, it would be hard to make an argument that Conte should leave. Even Di Matteo survived a 6th place finish thanks to an FA Cup and Champions League double. But beyond such flights of fancy, what matters now — the only thing that matters now — is a win on Monday against Watford and a solid finish to the season.
And then we’ll see. The tale has a few twists left in it yet, methinks.