One year ago today, Michy Batshuayi scored a goal at West Brom and Chelsea were confirmed Premier League champions. It was a tremendous achievement that few expected after “the Mourinho Season”. Conte likes to call it a miracle. He may be exaggerating, but twenty-four months ago Chelsea were busily managing expectations as the likes of Guardiola were reportedly saying that the squad needed a massive overhaul of at least ten new signings.
“Last season, after a 10th place, we won the league. It was difficult. We worked very hard, but we won. After a 10th place finish. Now, probably, you can finish fifth and start with a bit of an advantage compared to when you finish 10th.”
-Antonio Conte; source: Mirror
Obviously, 5th is worse than 1st, Europa League is worse than Champions League, and so on. That massive overhaul meanwhile is still going on, with last summer’s fresh intake of decent-to-good signings now needing further hand-holding. Conte probably won’t be overseeing their future development, rightly or wrongly, but whatever he’s started building will need plenty of future work. That’s how these things tend to work — or do we expect the new manager to repeat Conte’s miracle? — and that’s why we need to have some patience.
“We worked very hard for two years to try to build something and create a base. I think we did this, but I am the last person to judge the club at this moment. My task is to work and do my job in the best possible way with my players and for the fans. Then it is for other people to judge our position.”
-Antonio Conte; source: Chelsea FC
Whether you think Conte did a good job or not (especially in the second season), the one narrative that has really overstayed its welcome is the “self-sabotage” one, the one where Conte was doing his utmost to get fired so he could collect his severance pay as per the terms of the contract he signed last summer. It all started with that signature in fact, as no one knew how to properly process a pay-rise (to Chelsea record wages for a manager) but no actual extension in the new contract.
The long knives have been out for Conte ever since, with constant speculation and questions about his future, his relationship with his superiors, and sometimes even football-related matters when Chelsea slumped to poor results and Conte made some decisions that didn’t pay off (substitutions, lineups).
But to accuse him of deliberately sabotaging his team, and in turn his reputation, and in turn his career, is a logical leap that I’m simply unable to follow. It makes no sense.
The narrative goes like this: Conte doesn’t want to be at Chelsea (sulking, whining, tracksuits, right?), so he’s deliberately doing badly to get sacked and thus get paid out on the final year of his contract. If he just quit, he’d lose the money. And if he were a conniving, dishonorable, Machiavellian, match-fixer, he might do something like that. It’s a masterfully, tremendously fine line he thus walked, lasting all the way to the end of the season (thus maximizing his pay for this season) on minimum effort and then collecting the full year of severance. If he did worse, he would’ve been sacked earlier and thus missed out on some salary (the severance is a year maximum, regardless of timing after Chelsea learned their lessons with Mourinho, Scolari, Di Matteo, etc.).
This minimum effort is often backed up by evidence such as working hard to devise new formations, working the players too hard on the training pitch, working to figure out some sort of rotation for the squad when needed, constantly asking for new and better signings, constantly talking about building something good for the future, about fixing things next season, moving his family to London, and yeah none of that follows for “minimum effort” and “please sack me”.
As one would expect from Conte, an honest man, the only operative words that have mattered have been work, commitment, “suffering” (due to the worse season and squad), and paying great attention. That sure is a lot of mental and physical effort and a lot of supposedly empty and fake words for a man wanting nothing more than a well-funded vacation.
“You always learn. In your job, you every day learn, every season you are better than the last season if you want to keep improving yourself. In any job, after one season, you’ve learned a lot.
”If you want to stay the same level as the previous year, you can stay in a comfort zone. But I’m not that type of person. I don’t like comfort zones.
”Every season you have to face different situations. You must be very good to face these situations. Every season is different. You don’t have the same season twice. In every season you have the possibility to have many experiences and then to learn more from these experiences, and improve.”
-Antonio Conte; source: ESPN
And the thing is, Conte has resigned from jobs before when he thought the situation called for it. He did it at Bari (right after agreeing a new contract), he did it at Juventus (after back-to-back-to-back titles), and he did it at Italy, taking the decision well before Euro 2006 to return to club management. Never before in his career has he made money priority number one — see also his comments when Oscar chose to do that last year — and it really makes no sense that he would suddenly do that to Chelsea just because we lost a few games and he did not get all the signings he may have wanted. Those are common issues throughout his career, and the careers of most managers.
The self-sabotage narrative took a break during the recent winning streak — that should be al the evidence we need to render a verdict on its validity — but it was back bigger than ever after the disappointing 1-1 draw against Huddersfield Town. It was a match that Chelsea dominated in every measure bar the scoresheet, but Conte’s decision to rest Hazard and Giroud after their exertions three days prior was roundly questioned. That neither of them made a difference after playing most of the second-half was roundly ignored. Conte’s decision to rotate for a midweek match, something that he’s done all season, was also questioned and brought up as evidence that he simply just doesn’t care. But again, how does that follow?
He made a decision, and it didn’t work out. If Christensen’s header isn’t saved, it would have. By the width of Lössl’s gloves, Conte doesn’t care apparently. But obviously Conte planned it that way because £9m.
He’s unlikely to be unemployed for long anyway, and severance payments stop when the new job begins. He will not be short of suitors if (and when?) we sack him, a decision that we will surely come to regret.