Following the end of last Monday’s 4-1 thrashing at the hands of struggling Watford, there was a strong sense of inevitability that an announcement regarding the future of Antonio Conte was coming soon afterwards. That has yet to occur, though the delay in the departure of the Chelsea head coach has done nothing to smooth over the bleak atmosphere which has grasped Stamford Bridge in the last few weeks. Another Premier League winning manager is about to leave Chelsea Football Club and yet again, there is plenty of blame to be shared by all parties involved.
Pundits and fans alike initially doubted Conte’s ability to adapt to the Premier League and succeed in Chelsea’s unforgiving revolving-door managerial system, but the former Juventus head coach answered his critics with an unforgettable debut year. His side went on an unbelievable 13-game winning streak following a revolutionary switch in tactics — the three-at-the-back has since been adapted by the majority of top-flight sides — with the ultimate glory of the Premier League trophy their just reward at the end of the campaign. Such unlikely success has failed to save Conte from a sophomore slump, and in a way, probably contributed to it.
It has been all downhill — not precipitously, but steadily — since Conte lifted the most sought-after trophy in English football way back in May of last year. The season finished with a loss to Conte’s bogey team, Arsenal in the FA Cup final, while the summer started with the Diego Costa controversy, dragged on with the Alex Sandro transfer saga and culminated in a series of questionable acquisitions interleaved with embarrassing transfer rejections from the likes of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Ross Barkley. The transfer window was a calamity, ultimately setting the tone for the campaign ahead. An opening day loss to Burnley only increased the tension between manager and board, while further shocking defeats to winless Crystal Palace, stagnant Bournemouth and David Moyes’ West Ham has only helped seal Conte’s fate at Chelsea. It is surely now just a question of when rather than if, with ideally both sides able to make it work until the end of the season without long-term damage.
While this is hardly a new situation at Chelsea Football Club, the truly worrying thing is that Conte’s replacement is unlikely to fare any better. Conte pushed for high-quality reinforcements last summer, hoping to bring in Alex Sandro, Kyle Walker and Radja Nainggolan. Chelsea opted for cheaper (but not cheap) alternatives instead, and in walked Danny Drinkwater and Davide Zappacosta. Conte is a stubborn character, and those arrivals did little to quieten his beliefs that the club were leaving themselves behind both Manchester clubs in the race for domestic supremacy. He has not been afraid to voice these concerns when prompted by journalists, and that has left fans labelling him moody and surly and too hellbent on complaining instead of focusing on the lacklustre displays on the pitch.
Certainly, Chelsea’s performances even at the best of times have been below par when compared with last season’s, and extremely impoverished at the worst of times. That has led to extra scrutiny for Conte’s own decisions, both in terms of lineups and in-game adjustments. Tiemoué Bakayoko has mightily struggled to adjust to the pace of England’s top division, yet Conte insists on picking him week-in, week-out. The predictable false-nine system deployed in the absence of Álvaro Morata is as frustrating as was the continued use of a 3-5-2 formation in home fixtures against lesser opposition. Conte is far from blameless, and his mid-season feud with José Mourinho was a completely unnecessary distraction, and one that is not yet over. But after showing his ability to work magic with lesser pieces, his frustration is justified with the Board’s failure to reward him with better quality additions.
In the last month, the club refused to get involved in a bidding war for Alexis Sánchez, instead focusing their attempts on cut-price deals for recently injured Ross Barkley and Emerson, while adding supersub Olivier Giroud, also recently injured, as cover for the recently injured Morata. It was another example of the tightening of Roman Abramovich’s purse strings, but perhaps more glaringly, an example of the club focusing on quantity instead of quality. Regardless of whether Conte agreed with that approach or not, he has recently voiced his preference to flip that script, in what many interpreted as yet another not-so-subtle dig in a long line of not-so-subtle digs at his employers. This continued public criticism has reportedly led to the Board growing fed up with Conte, and while that’s unlikely to face the coach, the public/private bickering only adds to the already tumultuous season.
It’s eery just how similar Conte’s eventual departure will be to his predecessor’s, a man for whom he seemingly has little respect. In the same way Mourinho split opinion during his final months, Conte is doing the same. Blame and pity abound in equal amounts. His reasons for a failed title defense are acceptable, but the continuing lack of youth and smart rotation isn’t. His reactions to the failed pursuit of Alex Sandro and the non-existent push for Sánchez are understandable, yet refusing to hand Charly Musonda Jr or Callum Hudson-Odoi more opportunities to freshen up a stagnant Chelsea attack isn’t. In the weeks leading up to Mourinho’s sacking, fans implored him to introduce youngsters Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Kenedy to a sinking Chelsea side. In much the same way as Conte has, Mourinho stuck to those who won him a league title the year prior, which eventually cost him his job.
The tenure of Conte at Chelsea will always be remembered for an unexpected league title, followed by a typical collapse from the Champions at Stamford Bridge, but the magnitude of the collapse is yet to be written.
The season is not yet over, and there is plenty to fight for and plenty to lose if Chelsea do not finish in the top four. The barely concealed public bickering between all the stubborn stake-holders at the club are proving a huge distraction, and results have suffered. Everyone seems set for the inevitable departure, but in the meantime, there is a massive three-match homestand coming up, with West Brom in the league, Hull City in the FA Cup and then the main-event of Barcelona in the Champions League first knockout round all coming to Stamford Bridge in the next two weeks.
What occurs in these contests — as well as the three-in-four away stretch after (Manchester United, Manchester City, and Barcelona) — will define Chelsea’s season, and decide for just how much longer Conte will be around.