Towards the end of his first season, in which he established himself as one of the first names on the team sheet at Stamford Bridge, Antonio Rüdiger got himself into a bit of hot water with head coach Antonio Conte.
The date was April 8, 2018, and Chelsea had just drawn with West Ham at home, giving up the lead as we had done countless times that season. That habit, combined with earlier very bad results against the likes of Bournemouth and Watford, and uninspiring performances against the likes of City and United and Barcelona and Arsenal, and so on, had created a growing and familiar sense of palpable discord between players, coaches, management, and the fans.
Rüdiger wasn’t as vocal or as obvious about his frustrations as others, but he did let his guard down in the immediate aftermath of that West Ham match.
“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.”
“The thing is we have to look we have start to play good football and win games. If you don’t win games there’s no top-four, it’s easy.”
-Antonio Rüdiger; April 2018
The criticism was not unfounded, but such public outbursts are generally frowned upon. Regardless of whether he meant it as criticism of the team, his teammates, his head coach, or a bit of everything, it got him dropped for the subsequent match. It was a classic Conte move — loose lips sink ships and all that — but the two Antonios made up quickly and normal service was resumed.
“[Am I surprised by being dropped?] Yeah, a bit. I’ve had a lot of games recently so it’ll have been a little break. Probably [it had something to do with the criticism], but that’s not what I intended. What I said, it had nothing to do with tactics, it was a fact. Well, I think I didn’t attack anyone personally, I meant us as a team.”
“It’s just normal [the relationship], from my point of view at least. He’s my coach, I have to respect my coach, and that’s what I do. And he is a very good coach, definitely.”
-Antonio Rüdiger; April 2018
But Rüdiger was hardly alone in espousing such criticisms.
After a win against Brighton in January, in which Chelsea showed some scintillating, free-flowing offensive football, Eden Hazard was already remarking how we should do that more often. Hazard eventually made it pretty clear that he’d much prefer it if Conte’s tactics were no longer in effect at the Bridge, though he also warned that it wasn’t just the head coach who needed to show a bit more ambition in order to create a happy atmosphere once again.
Later, with Conte already gone and new head coach Maurizio Sarri instated, it was time for Álvaro Morata to have his take on the issue. He was supposed to be the perfect striker for Conte’s idea of football. Clearly, he was not. Even he admitted that.
And that’s before we even mention Willian (who was, surprisingly, the most vocal and obvious his anti-Conte stance), or David Luiz (who was, perhaps also surprisingly, much more professional but nonetheless quite clear), or any others who directly or indirectly made it clear that by the end of the season, Conte’s position was untenable.
Other than the one outburst, Rüdiger wasn’t going to get drawn into such shenanigans. And once the new season began, he made it very clear that he wasn’t going to talk about the old regime at all, preferring to concentrate on the progress that was (and is) being made under Sarri.
But indirectly, he’s making it just as clear that the current situation is much better than last year’s as far as he’s concerned.
“I played for Roma in Italy so I knew the way the manager [Maurizio Sarri] liked to play and it was something I favoured. He wants us to press high compared to last season when everyone knows we sat back.”
“Now it is different. We create a lot of chances and for me that’s very good.
“Mostly he likes the defenders to play the ball short and keep possession. I have shown so far I can do it but I want to improve every day. He is a coach who is not happy, he is always saying you can do better, and that keeps you alive.”
-Antonio Rüdiger; source: Mail
The only thing palpable at Chelsea these days is change. On and off the pitch, Sarri’s ringing in a new era with new rules, new methods, and new intentions, and so far, it’s all going as well as anyone could’ve hoped.
That of course won’t last. Sarri’s been in charge for less than two months. There will come turbulence, and perhaps soon, and the honeymoon will be over. The season started with a quickly forgotten reality check in the Community Shield against Manchester City; a similar one may be just around the corner with Liverpool coming up twice before the month’s out.
For now, we’re feeling alive, just like Rüdiger. But we’ll have to build up a few extra lives for the long season ahead.