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Conte still rues the day Matic left Chelsea, but claims he’s over it

Could keeping the Spider have saved Chelsea’s season?

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Tottenham Hotspur v Chelsea - Premier League Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images

In a summer long, long ago Chelsea sold a player whom Antonio Conte wanted to keep but who wanted to leave (for the second summer in a row). Well, okay, it was only seven months ago. But football is measured in dog years and seven months is an eternity.

Antonio Conte hasn’t forgotten. Nemanja Matic may be in indifferent form for Manchester United but Conte still rues the day he departed. We know because he said so at Friday’s off-camera press briefing.

“About this player I can only talk really well because he played with us last season. I think he was one of the key players in winning the title. Now Matic, unfortunately, is playing for Manchester United. I wish for him the best. Not on Sunday, but in the future.”

-Antonio Conte; source: Evening Standard

Unfortunate, indeed. Just like the rest of Chelsea’s oft-discussed — and often by Conte himself — transfer activities.

Why? Let us review our midfield. We have one player who continues to excel, the indomitable N’Golo Kante. We have a player who’s far better suited to attack than defend in Cesc Fabregas. We have late-arriving Danny Drinkwater, who has yet to fully integrate thanks to a lack fitness and a lack of training time to absorb The Conte Way (TCW.) We have hamstrung Ross Barkley who’s an even later arrival than Double D and whom Conte may not even view as a midfielder. And we have Tiémoué Bakayoko, he of the up-but-mostly-down season and source of plenty of heartburn.

Much was hoped for, and is still hoped for, from Bakayoko. He is just 23 and the club spent a fair amount on him. But throwing him to the wolves was never the plan. Conte said so himself, last summer.

“Bakayoko is a good signing for us. He is very young. My idea was to give Bakayoko the right time to adapt in this league behind Matic. But now after the sale of Matic, we need to try to accelerate this process for Bakayoko after his injury.”

-Antonio Conte; August 2017

Hard to argue with that plan, especially in hindsight as it’s become pretty obvious that Bakayoko needs time to adapt and grow into the faster, more physical style of play in England. Matic would have allowed the younger man some time and breathing room to absorb TCW. He probably would’ve allowed Bakayoko to finish rehabbing his lingering knee issues from the summer as well instead of being pressed into action on one leg against Spurs on matchday 2.

In a larger sense, having Matic in the squad would have addressed the chronic midfield problems that have plagued Chelsea this season. Unfortunately — there’s that word again — Matic had different plans.

Let us be fair to the much-maligned Board. Under Roman Abramovich, Chelsea have always been good to want-way players. The club have a reputation for treating our players well — which probably helps with recruiting, by the way — and this is part of it. Matic made it clear that he wasn’t interested in mentoring (and sharing minutes with) his replacement. He wanted a full-time starting job. So Chelsea accommodated him after ensuring a solid windfall in terms of a transfer fee.

Chelsea v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Conte claims he’s over it.

“In the past we have already managed this topic. I don’t want to come back and speak about the past because I think it’s not important, not interesting for us.”

-Antonio Conte; source: Evening Standard

Maybe yes. Maybe no. He’s cut a disconsolate figure whenever he talked about transfer windows this season. The rumors about tension with the board over player transactions, many of them from well-placed sources, refuse to die.

It’s not unreasonable to ask whether or not it all began with the sale of the Spiderbeast and the upsetting of a well-laid Conte plan, an upset which continues to ripple through our season.

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