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NEW DAWN FADES

The end of Antonio Conte at Chelsea

Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

From certain vantage points inside Stamford Bridge it must have looked like Antonio Conte had disappeared. Diego Costa had just netted a cathartic Chelsea winner in the season’s first match against West Ham and then tada! the new Blues boss was gone.

Conte wasn’t actually gone, of course. He had merely leaped (with precious little concern for the well-being of his designer suit) into the eagerly welcoming arms of several lucky Chelsea supporters seated in the stadium’s first row to celebrate the goal and in the process gatecrashed his way into the hearts of Chelsea supporters around the world. One match, one late winner, one enthusiastic jump and Conte had emphatically announced his arrival at SW6.

A new coach, no matter how suavely he’s dressed or how many consecutive Serie A titles he’s won, should not be able to stroll onto the touchline of a club that placed tenth the previous season (and not only placed tenth, but placed tenth amid copious lunacy and acrimony) and proceed to simultaneously influence and dominate one of the toughest, most competitive leagues in world football. But that’s what Conte did. In retrospect, Conte sort of made winning the 2016-17 Premier League title look easy. Except it wasn’t really easy, was it? The difficulties Conte and Chelsea endured trying to maintain and build upon what was achieved in the Italian’s first season painfully served to illustrate just how remarkable that campaign actually was.

Chelsea v Watford - Premier League Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

And there should be no misconstruing that fact: Conte’s first season at Chelsea was remarkable. With Chelsea once again grappling with uncertain times after a turbulent 2017-18 season, the simple appreciation of an exceptional feat that was only accomplished a little over a year ago has now become arduous. When a club of Chelsea’s stature consigns itself to playing European football on Thursdays as opposed to Tuesdays and Wednesdays, questions are always going to be asked. Fingers seeking to affix blame need to be pointed somewhere. For reasons both on-pitch and off, Conte found many of those fingers pointing directly at him.

Ahead of what would come to be viewed as one of the more uninspired Chelsea performances of recent vintage against Manchester City at the Etihad in March, Conte bluntly provided the media his thoughts on what he perceived to be a key cause of Chelsea’s struggles this past season: “I have great ambition, but I don’t have money to spend for Chelsea.” It was not the first time in the campaign that Conte had freely opined on Chelsea’s transfer activity (or more to the point, inactivity). Unsurprisingly, and not unjustifiably, some questioned whether the Chelsea first team coach openly critiquing the allocation of his employer’s finances was a good development for the overall morale of the club.

How much of an effect Conte’s public grievances had on the actual performances of Chelsea’s players is impossible to quantify. The ugliness of the statistics from Chelsea’s match at the Etihad is far less debatable. Chelsea failed to register a single shot on target in the match (failing to even take a shot at all in the first half) and allowed the home side to complete 902 passes – making Manchester City the first team to break the 900 pass mark in a Premier League match since Opta starting tracking the stat in 2003.

Chelsea’s toothless display in Manchester was one of several matches during the 2017-18 season that prompted doubt regarding the direction the Blues were headed under Conte. Consecutive three-goal defeats to Bournemouth and Watford in late January and early February sounded alarm bells, and there was also the bizarre three-goal defeat to Newcastle to conclude the Premier League campaign when Chelsea entered the day still having a (long) shot at Champions League qualification for next season. These frustrating matches were splashes of cold water in the faces of Chelsea supporters after the elation of winning the Premier League title, and in a way they obscured the fact that some of Chelsea’s underlying statistics did not differ that much between Conte’s two seasons.

Crystal Palace v Chelsea - Premier League Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

As Conte’s second Chelsea season dragged on, there was an increasing perception amongst some that the Italian’s tactics were too negative. Bad results usually lead to groaning. The Manchester City match in March in particular was a field day for anyone harboring the belief that Conte’s brand of football is boring. Interestingly though, an inspection of Chelsea’s expected goals numbers under Conte – ‘expected goals’ (xG) is a metric which assesses the quality of a player or team’s scoring chances and is essentially an attempt to answer the question of whether or not a goal should have been scored from a given scoring opportunity – reveals that Chelsea did not generate significantly better shot attempts in their convivial 2016-17 season than what they generated in their decidedly less convivial 2017-18 season.

In Conte’s title winning campaign, the Blues netted 85 goals which were second only to Tottenham’s 86 (business casual fashion icon and attacking football guru Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City were actually five goals off Chelsea’s total, with 80 goals). But Chelsea were only expected to have scored 62 goals that glorious season (all xG statistics per Understat). Basically, Chelsea scored 23 goals more than what the quality of their shot attempts suggested they should have scored. The Finishing Fairy was kind to the Blues in 2016-17.

It is not uncommon for top teams to outperform their expected goal numbers. Top teams generally have top players and top players generally finish chances that you (or the fine people that calculate xG statistics) wouldn’t expect them to finish. Still, a team in the Premier League outperforming their xG total by 23 goals in a season is rather unusual. For context, Understat has Premier League xG numbers going back to the 2014-15 season (not a great amount of data, but xG is a relatively new statistic) and the closest a team has come to outperforming their xG numbers by the same margin that Chelsea did in 2016-17 was Tottenham in that same season when their 86 goals were 16 more than the 70 goals they were expected to have scored.

This past season, Chelsea were expected to have scored 59 goals, just three goals less than the 62 they were expected to have scored when they won the title. But the Finishing Fairy abandoned Chelsea (the Finishing Fairy could well have an alias: Diego Costa). But Chelsea only actually scored 62 goals in 2017-18, which was the lowest total of any team in the Premier League’s top six and 23 less than their title-winning total. The Blues’ otherworldly finishing from the 2016-17 season regressed and the narrative on Conte’s managerial acumen shifted.

Photo by Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC via Getty Images

Since his time at Juventus, Conte’s tactical approach has largely remained consistent. He likes his teams to sit in a middle block, congesting the center of the pitch, and is not particularly concerned with the opposition passing the ball around in non-threatening areas. This tactic doesn’t produce the gaudiest possession numbers for his teams. Other than Conte’s first season in Turin when his Juventus team possessed the ball 58.1 percent of the time, his club teams since the 2011-12 season have overall averaged just a little over 54 percent possession in league play (all possession statistics per WhoScored). In neither of Conte’s two Chelsea seasons did the Blues crack the Premier League’s top four in terms of time spent with the ball. When Conte’s teams are converting a high percentage of their chances no one is going to complain much about aesthetics, but when their finishing goes awry it’s not difficult to see how Conte’s style could get interpreted as overly passive.

The viewpoint that Chelsea’s 2016-17 Premier League title was the result of the team being the fortunate beneficiary of an unsustainable run of red-hot finishing is not wholly unreasonable. It’s also shortsighted. Conte’s infectiousness that campaign was so powerful it mostly defies statistical categorization, but here’s a statistic: 17 of 20 Premier League teams started a match with a three-man backline at some point during the 2016-17 season. Prior to Conte’s arrival at Chelsea, back threes were seldom seen in the Premier League. Yet, such was the manner in which Chelsea were running away with the league title after Conte changed Chelsea’s leaky back four to a resolute back three, even the notoriously complacent Arsene Wenger took note of events transpiring at Stamford Bridge and decided to implement a back three of his own at Arsenal.

Luck was on Chelsea’s side when they won the title under Conte (luck is on most title-winners’ sides to some degree), but Chelsea wouldn’t have even been in a position to benefit significantly from any kind of luck had it not been for the savviness of Conte’s crucial formation switch. Conte’s 3-4-3 befuddled Premier League opposition not unlike Jose Mourinho’s 4-3-3 did when the magnetic Portuguese manager first plied his trade at Chelsea over a decade ago. In some respects, and as much as their incessant bickering this past season suggests they’d wish otherwise, Conte and Mourinho will be forever linked in Chelsea’s history. It’s difficult not to view the success of Conte’s first season in England through the prism of what Mourinho did not achieve in his second Chelsea spell.

Photo by Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC via Getty Images

The second Mourinho era at Chelsea was supposed to last a great deal longer than the first. ”I’m very, very happy. If somebody tells me I’m going to make ten years at Chelsea, I would say yes,” Mourinho said in February 2015. At the time, Chelsea were atop the Premier League table on their way to winning their third league title under Mourinho. On 17th December, 2015, Chelsea were 16th in the league having lost nine of their first 16 league games when the club made the polarizing (and allegedly mutual) decision to part ways with the still very popular Mourinho, ensuring his second term at Chelsea would actually be shorter than his first.

Coaching stability, an elusive concept at Chelsea, was not accomplished with the re-hiring of Mourinho as many had hoped. Mourinho’s departure once again left Chelsea with an unfortunate coaching void to fill, and it also left the club lacking an identity. Despite having spent comparatively much less time at Chelsea than Arsene Wenger had spent at Arsenal or Sir Alex Ferguson had spent at Manchester United, Mourinho still felt as synonymous with the Blues as those mangers did with their respective clubs.

Even beyond the ambiguous (but not entirely illegitimate) notion of Mourinho and his attitude and coaching philosophies ‘representing’ modern Chelsea, the squad itself Mourinho was leaving in his wake was like a funhouse mirror reflection of the components that typically comprise his teams. Veteran leaders were present (like John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic), but their creaking legs gave the strong suggestion that they were, perhaps, too veteran. Nemanja Matic had the physically imposing look of a midfielder who would bully the center of the pitch on a Mourinho team, but the impression was that he was a broken player after Chelsea’s poor 2015-16 season. And aside from the unquestionably great acquisition of N’Golo Kante from shock Premier League winners Leicester City, Chelsea’s board didn’t seem particularly interested in changing the dynamic of the squad in the transfer market ahead of the 2016-17 season.

Conte inherited an amorphous question mark of a team still speckled with the dulled remnants of a departed club legend’s ideologies and he chiseled and shaped it into something unique and distinctive. It was thrilling to watch. The joy that Conte reignited in Chelsea supporters after the heartbreak of watching Mourinho’s painful fall from grace the previous season could be the defining achievement of his Chelsea tenure. Conte exuded exuberance with every enthusiastic punch of the air that greeted Chelsea’s goals, and Blues’ fans, desperate for something to be happy about, eagerly fed off of the Italian’s energy. ‘Antonio, Antonio’ was belted out at Stamford Bridge with much the same vigor as ‘Jose Mourinho’ had been previously, a development that few could have predicted would have occurred so swiftly after the Special One’s exit.

Journalists weren’t even immune to the Italian’s charm. At times it seems as though the writers tasked with covering Chelsea author their commentary on the club with a keyboard in one hand and a razor-sharp knife ready for carving in the other, but Conte’s charisma had them laughing over a well-earned slice of victory cake after a 3-0 win over Leicester during his first season.

A new dawn had arrived at Chelsea. Conte was winning matches, winning over Chelsea supporters, and winning the admiration of the ever-fickle ‘neutral observer’. One league title and one FA Cup triumph later, that new dawn has faded. Over the course of one humdrum summer transfer window, Conte’s jovial demeanor turned rancorous. Before the Premier League season even kicked off, there were reports of unrest between Conte and the Chelsea board over the transfer business the club had conducted after the confetti from the title celebrations had finished falling. And looking at the squad Chelsea settled on to try and defend their title, it would be difficult not to acknowledge that Conte had reason to be annoyed.

Whatever passivity is inherent in Conte’s tactics was surely, at times, exacerbated by the limited options he had to work with. After an unfortunate health scare forced N’Golo Kante to miss that infamously dour match against Manchester City this past spring, the only available midfielders in Chelsea’s squad were the frequently aloof Cesc Fabregas, the questionably talented Danny Drinkwater, and the actually talented, but still quite young, Trevoh Chalobah (and he’s primarily played as a defender in the youth ranks). It’s a struggle to see just how Chelsea could have exerted any kind of control over a match against the runaway league title winners with those suboptimal midfield choices.

The loss of Diego Costa (and it should be mentioned, that a fractious relationship between Conte and Costa played a role, as it turns out, both of their departures) and the inconsistency of his replacement, Alvaro Morata, were major factors in Chelsea’s decline after winning the title, but the lack of quality in the Blues’ midfield was also significant. Tiemoue Bakayoko had his moments, but he also had his moments. Kante, for the majority of the 2017-18 season, was the only reliable midfielder in Chelsea’s squad; losing Nemanja Matic, who paired well with Kante in 2016-17, to Manchester United stung. This gave Chelsea’s midfield a porousness that did not exist in Conte’s first season. Chelsea conceded five more goals (and five more expected goals) in 2017-18 than what they did when they won the title. Not a huge margin, but along with the drop in chance conversion, enough to contribute to Chelsea’s inconsistency in Conte’s second campaign and prevent the Blues from qualifying for Champions League football next season.

Manchester City v Chelsea - Premier League
Dejection in the rain at the Etihad
Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Erratic results aside, one of the more unpleasant aspects of Chelsea’s 2017-18 season was the rapidity with which the mood surrounding the club soured. The ‘mood of a club’ is a somewhat abstract concept, or at least one that’s difficult to gauge precisely, but everyone at Chelsea from the supporters down to the players at least seemed gloomy for large stretches of the campaign. And, in the case of Willian, his emoji usage on Instagram provided at least some insight as to the actual state – and whom he deemed responsible for that state – of his mood. The effervescent energy that Conte had injected vanished almost as quickly as it had arrived.

With Chelsea falling from 1st to 5th in the table, this isn’t exactly surprising, but even taking the disappointing results out of the equation, Conte’s continued insistence (however justified) that the squad at his disposal was below standard (and the prickly demeanor he frequently adopted) likely had an effect on the overall disposition at Chelsea. That effect may or may not have led to actual points being dropped, but it certainly added to the Chelsea experience (for players, fans, etc.) feeling a whole lot less fun in 2017-18 than it was in 2016-17. It wasn’t necessarily Conte’s job to have made Chelsea ‘fun’, but the contrast in his personal attitude between his two seasons at Stamford Bridge was so striking it’s worth noting.

Despite the forlornness (and Conte’s role in that forlornness) that permeated around SW6 this past season, Chelsea and Conte still won a trophy. It was fitting. Conte has won a trophy in each of his seasons in club football since his first year at Juventus. Usually, it’s the league, but this time he had to settle for the cup. ”In a difficult season like this, I showed I’m a serial winner. This is the truth. To win this way this season gives me more satisfaction than my wins in the past,” Conte said after Chelsea’s 1-0 victory over Manchester United in the FA Cup final.

On the Wembley pitch that May afternoon after the final whistle had blown, Conte experienced a situation extremely familiar to him. He was drenched in champagne and he was posing for cameras with a flashy piece of silverware. Chelsea fans that stuck around Wembley to watch the celebrations were probably looking down on the version of Conte that they’ll want to remember. The smiles, the hugs, and the winning were all there for everyone to see. When Conte gave his final waves to those fans and disappeared from view, it would have been difficult to shake the air of finality that the whole scene must have had. Conte wasn’t coming back this time. He really was gone.

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