Tuesday's stories of a meeting between Antonio Conte and the Chelsea hierarchy are surely nothing more than tabloid fodder — take it away, Daily Star, citing a non specific (possibly non-existent story in the Express) — and are likely rooted in Conte's own recent plans of attending Andrea Pirlo's testimonial on Tuesday and then "we don’t know".
The idea that Conte, having started his vacation, would’ve flown back to London after that game just to attend his own sacking is pretty far-fetched, but the story does raise a couple worthwhile questions. Why even meet in the first place and perhaps more pertinently, why hasn't Conte been sacked yet?
It doesn’t take a village — or a board — to sack a manager. Presumably the decision has been made a long time ago anyway. (Nor is it dependent on Roman Abramovich's exact whereabouts or visa status.) Usually Chelsea send a lone assassin, like Bruce Buck or Ron Gourlay. Usually this happens very quickly, too: on the morning after; in the tunnel; on the plane home. We’re through the third day of Chelsea’s post-season and Conte is still on the payroll.
Speaking of money, maybe Chelsea are trying to negotiate a payoff for less than the £9m due as per agreed contract terms. Again, though, does it take “the board” to do that? Negotiations are more efficient when fewer people are involved. And you’d expect the meeting to be with Conte’s agent, Federico Pastorello, not the man himself.
Where does that leave us? Why, only with the most intriguing possibility of all! And that is, they’re exploring ways to work out their differences, with a view to keeping him, if possible. If we accept that premise, let’s go through the questions it raises.
Why keep him? Because as the board (which means Roman Abramovich) surveys the coaching landscape, it’s pretty obvious that the best coach Chelsea can land is... Antonio Conte. Gary Cahill put it best.
“Two years, two titles and one runners-up. Like I said the other day, for me that is success.”
Conte knows the league, his players, what he needs, and how to win.
Why would Conte stay? Let’s take him at his word.
“I have a contract and I am committed to this club.”
What’s the downside? We explored that one here. If he’s miserable again, the season could be a disaster.
What would make him happy? That’s an easy one, too. Buy him he players he believes he needs. There have been hints that Chelsea would spend this summer. Assuming that no players whom Conte values leave (unlike past summer), then any addition would be the reinforcement he wants. We’re already seeing a sign that money’s on the table (albeit possibly misguided money) with the rumor that we’re bidding on Robert Lewandowski.
Hasn’t he lost the dressing room? In a word.... narrative. In another word.... no. There’s a lot in this one, so let’s go through it one by one.
Willian: an unhappy player, no doubt about it.
He lost his place last season, largely through no fault of his own, and won it back (sort of) this campaign with stellar displays, finishing the season third on the club stats sheet with 13 goals and 9 assists and making the most appearances out of anybody (albeit starting only 33 of the 55). And even though he was named Chelsea Players' Player of the Year, Willian finished the season on the bench once again. He was peeved, something which happens all the time. It’s rarely a terminal condition (as tabloids would have you believe), especially if the player as is important as Willian.
The Brazilian Conspiracy: it’s nonsense. It goes like this: Antonio Conte (or Chelsea board, depending upon which version you prefer) hates our Brazilian players and want them gone. That’s why Costa and Oscar were sold, why David Luiz is in purgatory and why Willian is in a snit.
Except that it doesn’t make sense. Costa was agitating for a move almost from the moment he set foot in London. The denouement was ugly but the drama had been going on for at least two years.
Oscar was sold because it was a massive amount of money for him and for Chelsea. He has talked many times about prioritising his family’s financial security, and Chelsea were happy to cash in. In fact, the only man who didn’t welcome the move was Conte, because it hurt his squad depth.
David Luiz was definitely in Conte’s doghouse after publicly remonstrating during the Roma match. But Rudiger landed in that same doghouse for the same crime. For how long? Exactly one match. That’s surely how long David Luiz would have sat as well, had he not subsequently re-injured his knee and also his ankle. The man is hurt and is rehabbing.
Which leaves Willian, who may in fact be unhappy with the perceived treatment of his friends Diego and David, but who’s also two months shy of 30 and is wanted for big money by Manchester United. Chelsea landing on Conte’s side in this instance would be just as unsurprising as supporting the manager through the Costa drama.
And then there is Eden Hazard. Two years left on his contract. Hasn’t signed an extension, and said he wants a coach who doesn’t put him in a “tactical straightjacket”. That’s been interpreted as meaning he wants Conte out.
Does he? All coaches implement systems. Conte has been exceptionally flexible, using a wide variety of formations over his two seasons. The one time he truly constrained Hazard was when he used him as a center-forward. With Giroud on board, that won’t happen again. And he has repeatedly said he’s happy at Chelsea. So it is fair to believe that the straightjacket comment has been overblown.
And finally, Courtois who is also delaying a contract extension. But he’s never uttered a peep about being unhappy with Conte. Like Hazard, he just wants better players.
So no, Conte hasn’t lost the dressing room. And if he and the board can find a way to settle their differences, and if Chelsea buy the kind of reinforcements that Conte wants, then the Blues will enter next season with the best coach on the market: Antonio Conte.