On the eve of what turned out to be very much a season-defining clash, though not in a good way at all, Antonio Conte reflected on the cold hard truth of Chelsea’s 2017-18 season.
Head coaches and managers do this sometimes, this dreadful honesty, though we rarely take them strictly at face value, assuming them incapable of actually delivering an open-eyed assessment when the situation calls for it. Conte does it more often than most, since day one at Chelsea, really. It’s part of who he is; it’s part of his appeal as a head coach.
(This also doesn’t mean that he’s delivering this same exact (“defeatist”, as critics like to call it) message to his own players, too. Press conferences aren’t aimed at the players just as team talks and training ground meetings aren’t meant for public consumption.)
But we’re trained to look between and beyond the words. With Mourinho, for example, they were either mind games or excuses. (And they still are, if the reaction to his post-Sevilla press conference is any indication). With Conte, they are excuses or face-saving exercises or attempts to set the narrative for his own legacy. Even if he’s been saying largely the same things since day one — work work work: deemed inspirational last season; now deemed negative.
The cynics may be right of course. Conte could be strictly looking out for me and mine. Isn’t that what everybody else is doing? Conte owes us nothing after all, but we do owe him some money, which is all his unless he quits. Conte doesn’t strike me as someone particularly motivated by money (note his disparaging remarks regarding Oscar’s China move), but perhaps that’s just a facade because that’s what everything is these days. Nothing is real; everything is fake. You think that’s steak you’re eating?
But at the end of the day, regardless of what Conte or anyone else is saying, we’re left with the single cold harsh reality of the situation.
Chelsea are a work in progress. Conte repeated Friday’s message in Sunday’s post-match press conference, adding that the everyone was giving it their all, but worryingly this is the best they could do this season.
And this season, Chelsea are, at best, fifth best. We knew it was going to be a hard season. Sure enough, it has turned to be a very hard season. Cynics will call it a self-fulfilling prophecy, just like when Mourinho talked himself out of a title in 2013-14. Others will nod in agreement; others will protest; you may do something entirely different. We all have our coping mechanisms. We all can blame whomever we want. But the reality doesn’t change.
Chelsea are only good enough for the Europa League this season ... and maybe an FA Cup trophy, if we’re lucky (anything can happen in knockout competitions!). This is our level.
For Conte, this is not unfamiliar territory. He does love a reclamation project like no one else. If he stays, and sadly, that’s a bigger and bigger IF, but if he does stay, he certainly has his work cut out for him in that regard, especially as he does love winning, too.
“I think in this team there are many good players. For example, Emerson Palmieri. He’s a young player with a really good prospect but he needs to improve in many aspects. Andreas Christiansen is another, and Tiémoué Bakayoko is 22 years old. Antonio Rudiger [age 25] is not an old player. We have a lot of young players that need to make experience and to improve, not only on the pitch, but charisma and personality. You can do this only if you play important games.”
-Antonio Conte; source: Guardian
Conte may stay, Conte may go. The majority of the players will stay.
And then the real work will begin. On the pitch and off of it, behind the scenes and in the transfer market, it will be time to work work work and pay great attention and show unwavering belief and commitment.
Only then will we deserve something better.