We win together, we lose together. That’s been Antonio Conte’s message since Day 1. Never mind that he spent most of this season taking not-so-subtle jabs at his board for not giving him the players he wants. (Ed.note: in fairness, one always complains up the foodchain, not down or laterally.)
In the dressing room, his demand for unity is absolute.
For example, David Luiz is undoubtedly nursing a gammy knee back to health. He’s posted Instagram Stories of his rehab work. But it’s also widely believed that he was put in the stands for our 1-0 win over Manchester United in November for running afoul of Conte’s unity rule, because when he was pulled against Roma he made the mistake of showing his displeasure. (See also: Costa, Diego.)
At the time, Conte called Luiz’s absence a “tactical decision.” And mysteriously added that he was unsure of Luiz’s future at the club, that he had to work hard in training.
On Saturday, another stalwart Chelsea defender was neither on the pitch nor on the bench. This time it was Antonio Rudiger, a man who has supplanted Gary Cahill as Chelsea’s starting left centre-back. The reason given sounds familiar, and it doesn’t involve an injury.
Conte on Rudiger: "It was a tactical decision [to not select him]" #CFC— Nizaar Kinsella (@NizaarKinsella) April 14, 2018
Goal.com Chelsea correspondent Nizaar Kinsella thinks he’s solved the mystery, writing “Chelsea boss Antonio Conte left out Antonio Rudiger for his side’s 3-2 win at Southampton as punishment for his tactical criticism of his side’s collapse at Stamford Bridge last weekend against West Ham United.”
Here’s a refresher on what Rudiger said.
“For me, it’s not easy to explain. I don’t understand why after 1-0 we always drop and let the opponent get more ball possession.”
“I think we begged. We begged for the goal. I think in the second half we can finish the game. But like the last few months we didn’t and we concede. Like the last weeks again, we give them a gift. I think that was the first chance they have.”
Rudiger’s comments were refreshingly honest and raw, since he was only saying what we all felt. But it’s easy to see how Conte might believe that Rudi was criticizing his team.
If that is indeed what is happening, the news isn’t all bad. It’s possible to escape Conte’s doghouse and resume a good working relationship by — you guessed it — working hard, fighting and being ready to suffer. Luiz was back in training soon after his banishment (before aggravating his knee again). Plus, Conte might be gone soon anyway, so if you're going to drop bombs, you might as well do it now.
With two matches in the next eight days — Burnley on Thursday followed by the FA Cup semi against Southampton on Sunday — the odds would seem to favor Rudiger returning to the lineup sooner rather than later. It could, after all, be just a tactical decision as claimed, especially since Conte has been rotating the non-Azpilicueta positions of the back three lately.